Set in Alabama and focused on two idiots who panic after making a mistake, The Death of Dick Long laughs at its characters’ follies but ultimately shows the kind of affection for them and their habitat that can only come from someone who grew up there. Director Daniel Scheinert (who co-made Swiss Army Man with Dan Kwan) and screenwriter Billy Chew, both native sons, use their personal knowledge of Alabama’s quirks to tell a funny story that addresses topics normally played straight. The whole thing sounds like a joke, and it is, but it’s not the joke you’re thinking of.
We open with lying family man Zeke (Michael Abbott Jr.) and vaping, trailer-trash Earl (Andre Hyland) rushing their titular third friend to the hospital, where he subsequently dies. The cause of death is not revealed to us at first, and it’s not clear how much blame (if any) falls on Zeke and Earl, but they sure as hell don’t want anyone to know they had anything to do with it (they dumped him anonymously at the E.R. and kept his driver’s license). This is tricky given that Dick Long was their good friend and they’re well aware that his wife (Jess Weixler) is concerned about his failure to come home last night. In short, it would take criminal masterminds to weasel out of this. Zeke and Earl are not that.
While the local police, led by a feisty grandma sheriff (Janelle Cochrane) and her dogged deputy (Sarah Baker), investigate the shocking death and try to identify the victim (which probably shouldn’t be such a mystery in a town this small), Zeke and Earl panic hilariously. The backseat of Zeke’s car is still covered in Dick’s blood, leading to more furious ad-libbing when Zeke has to give his daughter (Poppy Cunningham) a ride to school. Earl loads up his pickup truck to leave town, then gets dragged back into Zeke’s coverup efforts, which involve ditching the blood car and reporting it stolen. The difficulty lies in keeping all of this from Zeke’s wife (Virginia Newcomb), culminating in a brilliant scene where Zeke tries to hide information from his wife while revealing other (false) information to the two cops, all in the same conversation. Gotta keep the daughter quiet, too, or she’ll blow the whole thing.
The details of Dick Long’s death (I won’t spoil it) are revealed at the movie’s apex, which Scheinert builds to like a composer in a symphony. I can’t guarantee the same results everywhere, but the audience at my screening, totally in the filmmaker’s hands, erupted in hysteria at this climactic moment. With everything out in the open, there are more avenues for comedy, which the film mines thoroughly despite the risk. Some of these subjects are touchy, and there’s much potential for offense by seeming to mock them and the people involved. I don’t feel like Scheinert’s tone is mocking, though. There’s plenty of down-home Alabama nuttiness in the details, but he doesn’t dwell on the common stereotypes or easy jokes; the kidding feels good-natured, like teasing among family members. The same goes for the specifics of Zeke, Earl, and Dick’s activities on that fateful night. It could be treated as tragedy, drama, comedy, or farce; Scheinert manages a combination of those, somehow both making fun of and sympathizing with his dumb, all-too-human characters. This is a very funny movie that goes much deeper than you’d expect.
(Screened at Fantastic Fest)