The Death of Dick Long at Sundance London: dark and absurdly funny redneck Fargo riff
There’s definitely something post-postmodernism, let’s call it post-irony, that’s been occupying film for the last decade. The best way I can describe The Death of Dick Long is that it’s post-post-irony, or post-post-postmodern, although I’m not entirely sure myself if that makes any sense. Maybe neo-absurdist? Or maybe just ‘film as meme’?
Crossing Fargo and Twin Peaks (although it goes without saying that it’s not in the same quality ballpark as those), Daniel Scheinert’s sophomore feature is a film of two halves. In the first, we scramble to find out how the titular Richard Long ended up dead from ‘anal haemorrhaging’. Then, in a move designed to be shocking, and perhaps successful at that aim depending on your constitution (and whether you just watched The Nightingale), it reveals exactly how that happened. The second half of the film revels in the aftermath and asks us how a group of people can move forward from such…. Erm…. Lets just say such ‘events’.
Hard-rock band Pink Freud is composed of three redneck-type guys – Zeke (Michael Abbot Jr.), Earl (Andre Hyland), and Dick (the director – that’s part of the joke). Every evening, they meet in Zeke’s basement for ‘band’ practice, which mainly consists of lots of drinking, vaping, loudness, and all sorts of vaguely-homoerotic, stereotypically-masculine behaviour. But one of these nights gets carried away when it leaves Zeke and Earl frantically driving Dick to hospital as he loses litres of blood from his rectum.
Their attempts to cover this up once it’s revealed that poor Dick has died are comically absurd and utterly stupid – neither Zeke nor Earl has been blessed with the gift of intelligence, something that the vastly more.. erm… endowed women around them frustratedly cope with every day. The back of the family car, drenched in blood, is covered up by a thin picnic blanket – of course the gore seeps through onto the blanket, and then Zeke’s young daughter’s white dress. How do they solve the problem? Throw the car, which the police have seen, and which is covered in the pair’s prints, into the lake. A shallow lake, as it turns out: half the car sticks out of the water in an image as tragic as it is schadenfreude-provoking.
On the case are Officer Dudley (Sarah Baker) and Sheriff Spencer (Janelle Cochrane), a hilariously quaint small-town police duo – Dudley’s wife bakes her a quiche as a reward for getting the case. Dudley’s inspiration is clear: Frances McDormand’s Marge from Fargo, although Baker makes the role her own – her character isn’t nearly as sharp as Marge. Spencer, meanwhile, is a desensitised, disillusioned type modelled on Philip Marlowe – which, in a small, uneventful town, is funny enough on its own.
Scheinert’s real skill is injecting his characters with a sizeable dose of warmth and humanity, preferring to usher laughs with clever editing and absurdity than with bawdy, all-out jokes. Although his characters are ones stereotypically demonised by the media: for their violence and sexism, racism, incest, and stupidity, Scheinert allows each and every one of his cast blossom into fully-formed, ultimately (God, I hate to say this) likeable people who we are able to watch with interest, and not with contempt. Even when the extent of what is actually going on unfurls onto the screen, we’re able to stick with the material, which is surely testament to perfect pitch.
Visually, this isn’t anything to write home about, but The Death of Dick Long likes to fill frames with the colour red – whether from confederate flags, neon lights, or car brakes – which at least gives the film a cohesive aesthetic. Sonically, on the other hand, there are plenty of hilarious audio cues that I think it’d be unfair to spoil here – lets just say Nickelback is involved. Scheinert’s irony knows no bounds.
Ultimately, although The Death of Dick Long feels slight, or at least feels like a one-trick-pony (that’s a joke by the way), coasting along on a wave of murderous intrigue and hick-based comedy until the siphoned gasoline eventually runs out, it’s a fun ride whilst it lasts. With a deliciously outré plot and a fantastic cast of colourful characters, Daniel Scheinert has proved he’s able to tackle more grounded material than the wild Swiss Army Man. Unlike that film, A24 might have a hard time selling this one.