Daniel Scheinert’s The Death of Dick Long deals with a specific subphylum of masculine ennui that can be largely associated with quote unquote white trash. I don’t necessarily mean that as a dig or even to be dismissive of what Scheinert and writer Billy Chew are doing here either. If anything, Dick Long happens to share a lot of things with James Gray’s Ad Astra, a film that’s been on my mind a lot lately. The two films examine masculinity in uniquely specific ways: if Ad Astra provokes despair through its cerebral provocations, where emotions cannot crack the veneer of its stoic protagonist, then Dick Long is something more primal, less intended for the intellectual unraveling. It’s about the hostility that comes from not understanding a question, about a certain absent-minded naivety that I tend to associate with the political Right. It’s easy to ridicule, sure, but it ends up becoming surprisingly more complex than its Nickleback-laced soundtrack would suggest. If Dick Long’s provocations are more sensational and weird, does it make Scheinert and Chew’s observations on male relationships any less genuine?
My skepticism antenna was in tune from the start, as I found Scheinert’s previous directorial effort, Swiss Army Man, to be an ineffectual, hyperwhimsical mess. And provided that Dick Long opens with the sight of three redneck types covering an early aughts nu-metal track, I was beginning to fidget. But the sequence is fundamentally informative, establishing the milieu and perspective of this Alabama community, as Zeke and Earl (Michael Abbott Jr. and Andre Hyland) attempt to haphazardly dispose of the Dick’s (Scheinert himself) body at the local hospital. What follows is an extrapolation of dumbfuck logic, a collection of cortex-withering decisions made on behalf of its two protagonists. A pair of dimwitted officers (Janelle Cochrane and Sarah Baker) stumble along the case, perpetually overlooking vital details in a case that would seemingly be solved within minutes. But as the film unravels, Dick Long’s true death is one that couldn’t possibly be predicted, and provides the film with a kind of depth that is reminiscent of Tracy Letts’ collaborations with William Friedkin - where the shock and utter randomness of the film’s narrative twist suggests a unique American truth about frail masculinity.
Scheinert and Chew have a tendency to lean in heavily on broad caricature. With characters of this type, it’s easy to mock. But at vital moments they pull back, providing these yokels, particularly Zeke and his wife Lydia (Virginia Newcomb), with a depth that lesser filmmakers wouldn’t consider. This is particularly the case during the film’s big narrative reveal, where everything is played as straight-faced as possible. A scene of its magnitude could have easily devolved into the broadly comic, but instead it’s realized with a kind of sincerity that makes it all the more memorable. It’s all the more satisfying with editor Paul Rogers’ vibrant crosscutting, dispatched twice during the film and accompanied by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell’s rich score. Scheinert may suggest that it all boils down to building up a couple of punchlines, but this complex, grisly joke of a film ends up having some sharp canines, to the point that even its ridiculous conclusion ends up piercing close to the bone.