But is that really a bad thing?
The “Daniels” — Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert — are filmmakers who are keenly concerned with mores of male intimacy, and how they collide in a masculine culture where “no homo” is the supposed law of the land, especially in the rural states where their movies reside. This was the running theme of Swiss Army Man, the Daniels’ first feature film, and so it continues in spirit with The Death of Dick Long, a project directed by Scheinert alone.
The titular Dick Long (played by Scheinert) dies, as the film willfully gives away, early on in the film after an introductory scene featuring a group of male friends engaging in compounding acts of drunken buffoonery and redneck recklessness. Dick’s actual death is offscreen, but we see him carried to the hospital anonymously by his two friends not long before his heart will give out from excessive bleeding. What ensues is a mad dash to cover up their involvement in his death, which is starting to look like foul play in more ways than one, but for reasons that remain mysterious for a good portion of the story.
The leader of the friends, Zeke (played by Michael Abbott Jr.), goes to extreme lengths to hide what happened that night, while Earl (Andre Hyland) contemplates a few life changes in response to the shattering events. As the police close in on what might have transpired, Zeke and Earl reach a stunning revelation about the nature of their friendship with Dick and a fourth party, the likes of which few in the audience will see coming (but suffice to say it is a turn in the film that might remind of Sorry to Bother You, but more grounded in reality).
There is a point to the wacky weariness of Dick Long, which is a film brimming with intriguing messages, but not much in the way of moment-to-moment entertainment. Watching Zeke and Earl flail in their clumsy criminality is at its best when played for laughs, but the latter part of the film leans heavily into the rightful drama of the situation, and when the sparse laughs do come, they come with the price of a surprisingly somber, suspenseful tone. Consider it Fargo heightened to 11, with Sarah Baker channeling a police officer as endearing as Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson.
But again, there is a point to that unrelenting tone of melodrama, and it seems as if Scheinert and Billy Chew (the screenwriter of the film) want men to think more deeply about their place in society, and how their wants and desires tend to be relegated to a few culturally acceptable outlets of release. Men can “get weird” too, the film posits, which hints at a positive message about masculinity escaping strict definitions that ultimately drive them apart from friends, family, and everyone in between. What is underneath the soul of a man, Dick Long suggests, is a repressed loser trying to break a self-imposed cycle of shame.
Of course, it’s hard to look at the source of the mystery itself as anything worth promoting or accepting into the mainstream, but that’s probably the point. What drives men to the extreme fringes of taboo behavior can be brought on by years of legalistic conditioning in the form of religion, politics, and small town sensibilities.
Speaking of which, the best aspect of Dick Long is easily the location itself. Set in the deep south, Scheinert and his collaborators clearly love where they grew up and want to share a different side of this setting as normally portrayed in cinema, whether it be overly glorified in some conservative films or woefully pilfered in liberal ones. Dick Long strikes a far more authentic balance, even though the film itself never quite lands on a similar balance when it comes to driving its point all the way home.
Still, it’s hard not to root for a film this audacious in what it wants to say and how it says it. In fact, there are few films quite like it if you’re disregarding the Coen brothers. Yes, the film plays fast and loose with the boundaries of its audience, but perhaps that’s for the better. As a complete, standalone film with technical merit, The Death of Dick Long likely won’t be fondly remembered by most, but it is sure to spark some uncomfortable conversations that transcend its own irreverent title.