Dick Long is dead, and his friends Zeke (Michael Abbott Jr.) and Earl (Andre Hyland) are at their wit’s end. They’re desperately trying to cover up whatever role it was they played in their buddy’s untimely death. Not that these two small-town Alabama yokels can keep a story straight, or know a thing about disposing of incriminating evidence apart from what they sorta-kinda remember from movies and TV. But at least they have a few hours’ head start, because no one—not even Dick’s wife, Jane (Jess Weixler)—has figured out yet that their friend is missing, let alone connected him with the unidentified body at the local hospital.
It isn’t until almost an hour into Daniel Scheinert’s The Death Of Dick Long that we learn the grotesque circumstances of Dick’s demise, and the reason why Earl and Zeke would go to crazy lengths to hide their involvement. But if so much of the film feels like an elaborate set-up for a joke, the real kicker is Scheinert’s decision to play the punchline absolutely straight—though even then, one can’t shake the suspicion that this is also a put-on. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that The Death Of Dick Long has played well at film festivals; it is probably best seen with zero foreknowledge.
This left turn into indie drama by way of a gross-out premise has obvious echoes of Swiss Army Man, the surreal buddy comedy that Scheinert co-directed and co-wrote with his longtime creative partner, Daniel Kwan. (The duo, usually credited as “Daniels,” are veterans of music videos and commercials, best known for DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s “Turn Down For What.”) While The Death Of Dick Long may lack that film’s gonzo attitude and its basement-rec-room flavor of boner joker and slapstick handmade effects, it deals in many of the same subjects, not the least of which are the warped fantasies and bonds of male friendship. If Zeke and Earl’s terrible secret is a lot less bizarre than the sight of a man riding a gas-bloated corpse across the waves like a fart-powered Jet Ski (one of Swiss Army Man’s more indelible images), it is in many respects more off-putting.
Yet Scheinert (who also plays the part of the deceased) never lets his solo outing devolve into a hick freak show, even as it indulges in broad caricatures of porch-flag, lottery-ticket America, from the obnoxiously vaping Earl, who has the “Ooh-wah-ah-ah-ah” from Disturbed’s “Down With The Sickness” as his ringtone, to the local law, represented by a sheriff (Janelle Cochrane) who walks with a cane and an ineffectual deputy (Sarah Baker). Even the soundtrack—which includes Nickelback’s “How You Remind Me,” Creed’s “With Arms Wide Open,” and a shambolic cover of Staind’s “It’s Been A While”—falls somewhere between irony and sincere fondness.
One can think of recent indies that have done a better job of exploring similarly dark, trashy recesses of protracted adolescence—the films of Joel Potrykus, for example. (This year’s Relaxer even featured Hyland in a memorable role as a juggalo.) But even as the antics get more and more boneheaded—whether it’s Earl’s harebrained plan to skip town or Zeke’s attempt to dispose of a car in a shallow pond—one never doubts the affection that The Death Of Dick Long has for these numbskulls. Billy Chew’s screenplay takes at least one important lesson from the best of both crime movies and small-town portraits: The characters, however minor or ridiculous, seem to lead lives that started well before the movie and will continue long after. Well, except for Dick himself. He’s gone.