2019

Sundance London Review: Daniel Scheinert’s ‘The Death of Dick Long’

The poetry of the hick suggests itself in the Alabama-set The Death of Dick Long, the solo debut of Daniel Scheinert — he of the “Daniels” duo behind Swiss Army Man and the “Turn Down for What’’ music video. In a slow motion opening credits sequence set to three inseparable pals at band practice hanging out in the garage, sipping from bongs and waking the kids up with their drumming, Scheinert’s lucid visual style is set in place. Pink Freud are a local institution.

By the next morning, Dick Long is dead. Thus begins a long day of the soul for Zeke (Michael Abbott Jr.) and Earl (Andre Hyland), the two band members left standing. In minutely plotted detail, Scheinert has the clumsy duo try to cover their tracks and figure out next steps before anyone realises they were with Dick on the night of his death. What they haven’t figured on is that their small town existence will become a hall of mirrors, and everyone has seen something. This methodical Southern Noir, taking viewers piece by piece through the crime’s aftermath with a scabrous black-comic wit, is reminiscent of Blood Simple. But The Death of Dick Long reaches even further back to the James M. Cain potboilers of darkness and desire, and to the fever dream paranoia of Crime and Punishment.

Slowly investigating the case are Janelle Cochrane as the aged Sheriff Spenser, hobbling with a stick and sharing out shots of Malibu while in uniform. Yet she’s clearly respected, a legend in the community, and she’s unbelievably sweet to her young protege. That’s Sarah Baker, she of Louie’s Fat Girl” episode, one of the decade’s greatest TV guest spots. Here, she’s a younger take on the Marge Gunderson mold, honest and caring, a bit green, but with an eye for details that makes her a great cop in the making.

Those details are what sets The Death of Dick Long apart. “Outreach Coordinator” is a prominently featured opening credit, and textures of the community are omnipresent: a woman in a hospital waiting room reading Diabetes Magazine, a local mowing the hill outside their house by holding a lawnmower on a string. This leads to an interesting articulation of deep south politics, in that its largely not verbalised. Scheinert chooses to focus on ordinary people, but his politics are embedded in the details of the setting — a “No Handguns” sign on the school, a reference to “Crack Mountain Trailer Park” and the psyches of the characters. It’s quirky but grounded in tactile items from the place. Call it Jared Hess without the affectation.

It isn’t long before Scheinert reveals the cause of Dick’s death, a passage both terrifying and bizzare. With each tense set piece building to reveal what happened the night before, it becomes more difficult to sympathise with Zeke and Earl, but they also become more compelling, more human, as Scheinert uses each twist to burrow further into the impulses and regrets of two strong silent types. Earl, who’s harder to read, is inarticulate. When Dick’s wife questions him, he sputters and talks in circles. He’s most recognisable by his beloved Vape, which he gives a good luck tap when he places it down to jump in a lake. Earl complains that his honey mustard has too much dijon in it. He seems like an integral part of the town’s landscape and doesn’t question the whys of what happened, or its morality. To him, the solution is skipping town. Zeke can’t let go of the life before last night. But his daughter, a narc if ever there was one, and his wife, the extraordinary Virginia Newcomb, who’s mouth folds at the corners when Zeke lies to her, have already become mirror versions of what they were to him. If Earl is inarticulate, its because he sees the truth of their situation more clearly.

When the big reveal comes, there is an inevitable deflation as the audience, and each character on screen, has to gather their thoughts. It’s ostensibly so silly and flippant as to lose some viewers. But the real triumph of Scheinert’s direction is that he mines this for the emotional truth behind something laughable, then builds up again to another orgiastic moment of cinematic ecstacy. In that climax, as Zeke is put through his mental paces while poised to one spot, Scheinert treats viewers to a long zoom into the crevices of the character’s face, as he stares at the floor with the orange glow of his kitchen lighting him from below. The sustained pressure of this moment is articulated through a perfect synthesis of the form and the dramatic utility of the scene.

The Death of Dick Long is also about the death of boners; the sex drive being wiped out, the moment of clarity after climax. None of this is to spoil the unpredictable ending, with the final scene slyly using an iconic trash-rock track. In some ways, it’s a throwback to the Bush era, to the cultural dominance of red state ideals. At least, it’s a homecoming for the Alabamian Scheinert that uses his warped view of the place to create a glowing nostalgia and a strong vision for American Indie cinema.

Ben Flanagan (@peche_lives) is a British critic and recent MA Film graduate from The University of Bristol. He’s contributed to Mubi Notebook, DMovies and has lots of feelings on classic Hollywood, Paul Verhoeven and online cinema culture.

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