Witnessing bestiality involving a horse followed by a murder cover-up within the first five minutes of sitting down for The Death of Dick Long makes for a rather uncomfortable but curious feeling as to whether what’s on screen is going to end up as some hilarious comedy, or a realistic drama that is just hard to take seriously. Perhaps being one or the other would have suited the film better, as director Daniel Scheinert’s latest is an example of how a semi well-executed and engrossing story is perhaps best left clean from the kind of forced humor that does not always contrast well with a drama that is supposed to be taken earnestly.
The premise centers around three Alabama band members who have an addiction to partaking in ‘horse misadventures’ during the night that they hide from their families — for obvious reasons. One member of the band, Richard ‘Dick’ Long (Daniel Scheinert), is killed by his own horse during one of these nightly sessions, leaving the two remaining band members, Zeke Olsen (Michael Abbott Jr.) and Earl Wyeth (Andre Hyland), to dispose of their friend’s body at a local hospital. Unluckily, they are slowly entangled with the police looking into Dick’s death as a possible murder, thanks to the moral justice Zeke’s wife and daughter attempt to exact, leading the band members directly into trouble.
The Death of Dick Long may seem slightly convoluted during its initial set up, but the overarching plot quickly becomes its strongest aspect from the beginning to the end, as the coverup behind Dick’s death is slowly unraveled by local law enforcement and Zeke’s own family. Yes, it is indeed a unique plot due to its unnatural beginning, but the story fails to dive deep into the psyche of the main characters as they cope with the fact that they partake in abnormal behaviors that lead to their good friend’s demise and their own possible arrests. Ultimately, Dick Long never goes farther than being a tale about a bunch of hooligans on the brink of being driven out of their hometown.
The comedic aspects also quickly derail the serious tone of the story. Rather than having key character moments that could focus on Zeke and Earl’s dark circumstances, The Death of Dick Long ignores character development in order to cram in far to many attempts at humor and references to other films that involved accidental death, such as the famous car clean-up scene from Quinton Tarantino’s cult classic, Pulp Fiction. These attempts miss the mark most of the time, despite a few instances where the comedy does actually perfectly fit with the characters’ situation.
A subplot featuring two low-ranking police officers (Sarah Baker and Jaime O Bell) and the local Sheriff (Janelle Cochrane) investigating Dick’s ‘murder’ ends up being the most consistent and intriguing aspect of the film, as watching the police unravel Zeke and Earl’s coverup is more interesting than seeing the opposing side of the story; it’s a subplot that should have further reinforced the main story.
Outside the bumpy plot, The Death of Dick Long doesn’t fare much better in other aspects. Tons of matte color filters are used throughout the film, giving off a blurry feel that can be distracting, especially during the scenes shot at night (and there are quite a lot of those). Symbolism and focus on crucial objects that foreshadow and could potentially build upon characters often take a backseat during moments of pristine opportunity in favor of odd closeups and messy wide shots of actors who never seem like they’re giving it their all.
In the end, The Death of Dick Long fails to balance or stick to exactly what it wants to be — a comedy or a drama. While the film has a well-written setup with several routes to explore the characters’ psychologies, these opportunities are never used or are often wasted by being shoehorned into the only character-driven scenes in the film that fail to impress. Comedy is clearly what came first for the central characters, and it does not work. What viewers are left with is a more desirable story for the major characters, and time wishing that the minor ones received a larger presence during the notably sluggish second act.
While being a major letdown for a followup release after A24’s most recent hits, The Death of Dick Long may or may not still be worth the admission price depending on your comfort with and interest in such a premise. Despite being laughably enjoyable for certain audiences, there is something far more sinister and disturbing for many others here. If you are into sick-twisted humor, this might be an afternoon just for you; if not, then be advised to strafe left from this messy flick.
Fantastic Fest runs September 19 – September 26. Visit the official website for more information.