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"Weird" is a word that’s extremely relative in its meaning. Much like the art of comedy, the art of weirdness means different things to different people. So if your movie is going to open with the promise of getting seriously bizarre, the question of whether it can deliver or not is always going to be open for interpretation.
In the case of The Death Of Dick Long, the latest directorial effort of Swiss Army Man co-director Daniel Scheinert, the movie’s not as weird or funny as it wants the world to think it is. What we get instead is an interesting dissection of a life falling apart, and a well written mystery that succeeds in the face of an underdeveloped ensemble of characters.
The Death of Dick Long focuses on the aftermath of one night gone horribly wrong, as friends Zeke (Michael Abbott Jr.) and Earl (André Hyland) scramble to bring their friend Dick (Scheinart) to the emergency room after an incident mortally wounds him. His accidental death sends the two co-conspirators on a maddening journey to protect themselves from an ensuing investigation, which eventually will reveal a surprising truth that no one expected.
You can tell as The Death of Dick Long spins its down home southern yarn that it’s more than a little narratively influenced by the Coen brothers’ storytelling style of simple situations slowly spiraling out of control. To its credit, screenwriter Billy Chew’s writing runs with that influence, but uses it to accent his story with a sense of homage, rather than to commit outright theft. The movie may have a Coen feel to it, but it’s not merely a collage of their greatest hits.
While The Death of Dick Long walks the tightrope between influence and mimicry with deft precision, it isn’t as well put together as the films from which it takes inspiration. In fact, the greatest problem in the execution is the fact that as interesting as the characters seemed to be, it's difficult to seamlessly slip into their world. You can track the film’s events, but you're left feeling removed from this particular ecosystem of characters. The end result is that stretches of this movie’s feel like a slog. One moment the dialogue is trading in funny and eccentric patter that sees a doctor telling the local sheriff about the eponymous case in comedic fashion, and the next it’s a stone cold serious murder mystery that’s trying to show Zeke's emotional torture of as he moves from one lie to the next.
The latter half of the exercise is where The Death of Dick Long really works its magic, as Zeke’s journey is the through line we follow for most of the narrative. And Michael Abbott Jr. pours a lot of hard work into his performance of a man with a secret to keep, which pays off every time the story chooses to put him front and center.
His talents are especially complimented by that of Virginia Newcomb, who plays Zeke’s wife Lydia. The way that she digs deeper into the lies that Zeke has been telling makes for a tremendous dynamic between on-screen husband and wife; with Newcomb’s reactions being consistent gold. Whenever they’re paired together in a particular moment, The Death of Dick Long shines as bright as the fireworks that open the story.
As much as I wish the characters in this story were better developed, there are particular moments, such as the eventual unraveling of the central mystery, that inch The Death Of Dick Long towards being better than the sum of its parts. It’s not easy to create a pile of inconsistencies and then consciously call your characters out on them in a meticulous manner, but that’s exactly what Billy Chew’s script does.
It gets to the point where Zeke is confronted about the myriad of lies he’s told throughout the entire film, and with each flawed story either debunked or doubled down on, the pressure is palpable. There are no easy answers and very real consequences at work in The Death of Dick Long, and it makes the fact that the characters it employs don’t spark as well as they should all the more upsetting.
At its best this movie is an intriguing spiral into shame and truth that lingers where most tales of its ilk don’t care to. At its worst it’s a story that promises to get weird, but doesn’t get weird enough, especially when compared to Daniel Scheinart’s previous film. The Death of Dick Long may surprise you, it might even shock you; but it won’t be in the ways you expect.