The Death of Dick Long (2019)
Written by Billy Chew
Directed by Daniel Scheinert
The Coen Brothers so successfully cornered the market on rural crime/mystery that a review of any film that falls into that genre will inevitably mention them. So here’s the mandatory mention. The Death of Dick Long is very much in the vein of movies like Blood Simple, dark and funny with a biting wit. The filmmaker understands his characters to a depth that they avoid becoming caricatures. It would be easy to lazily portray everyone here as ridiculously stupid, but the film manages to show them like idiots in a totally realistic way. The lies told to cover up what happened are so paper-thin the audience cringes knowing these guys are going to get caught.
One night, after a jam session with his band, Zeke decides to keep the party going with his buds, Earl and Dick. While Zeke’s wife and daughter head off to bed, the boys venture into the woods out back, drinking and setting off fireworks. Their wild night comes to close for the audience as they adjourn to the barn. Next thing we know, Zeke and Earl are driving wildly to the hospital with Dick bleeding out in the back seat. They dump Dick in front of the emergency room doors and abscond into the night, planning to play everything off as normal the next morning. But Dick is dead, listed as a John Doe in the hospital. Zeke has Dick’s wallet, and Dick’s wife is growing increasingly convinced that he’s been cheating on her with someone and runoff. But oh, things get so much worse.
Daniel Scheinert is one half of the directing duo Daniels, responsible for the 2016 comedy Swiss Army Man. Now working solo, Scheinert goes for a more grounded but just as outrageous premise. The dark secret behind Dick’s death is the core of the movie, with the revelation coming at the halfway mark. It’s a twist that could be played so tastelessly, yet somehow screenwriter Billy Chew allows the impact to hit the audience with full force yet doesn’t drag anyone through the mud for a cheap joke. There are deep cuts in what this film in referencing, knowing how sharp the audience is and always working one step ahead. You wouldn’t be blamed for finding yourself squirming almost constantly in the final act of the picture.
Scheinert has a lot of fun spotlighting dumb people trying to cover up their crimes. Zeke is responsible for taking his daughter to school and realizes on the way down to the garage the backseat is soaked through with blood. He covers it up with a sheet, but it seeps through staining the back of his child’s jumper. This leads to a tense moment in a convenience store when he encounters a friendly local police officer. We’ve seen moments like these in so many crime films, but they are just as potent here. The audience knows the adage “Crime doesn’t pay,” but we still don’t want to see our protagonist get caught.
There are some wonderfully unexpected supporting characters, chiefly Sheriff Spenser, an elderly female police officer sporting prescription sunglasses and a cane, and Officer Dudley, the friendly female cop who ends up assigned to the John Doe case from the hospital. Dudley, in particular, is one of those unassuming and sneakily shrewd detectives, much like Marge Gunderson from Fargo. She’s an investigator who, as we sit through a scene with a character lying painfully bad, the audience knows is going to pick up on that one line that just doesn’t parse and get to the bottom of what is really going on.
The Death of Dick Long is an incredibly well-made and thought out picture, a satisfying crime story that I guarantee will not be like anything else you see this year. It signals Scheinert as more than a one-hit-wonder who made an outrageous film that got lots of attention (though Swiss Army Man is a great film, in my opinion). Here he’s made a solid, understated, and genuinely funny movie.