The Death of Dick Long enjoys horsing around as a gloriously serious joke about a man in crisis
by Chase Hutchinson
In 2016, one of the most talked about and surprising films was Swiss Army Man. It was a silly but ultimately heartfelt story of a man befriending a corpse and the adventure they went on. It was one of the more mainstream films of recent memory that deployed magical realism as a central part of it. The Death of Dick Long ditches that magical realism (and one half of the directors known as Daniels) to create a much more down to earth story that is a masterclass in balancing tone. To explain why would be to ruin the wild journey the story takes, but suffice to say it is unlike any film I have ever seen. The premise is initially simple: friends Zeke and Earl have a night of partying where their friend Dick has an unfortunate accident. They attempt to drop him off at a hospital to get help but he dies there, leaving the two of them to try to cover up what happened.
The mystery starts out in a unremarkable enough manner but really shines when it takes an utterly remarkable turn that leaves the entire story completely off the rails. I mean this in the best way possible, the film manages to ride a fine line between absurdity and authenticity. The characters are incredibly real as they try to hide what exactly happened to Dick. The scenes that shine most are when Zeke is attempting to cover up, deny, explain away, and ultimately face the consequences of his actions. Abbott Jr. does an incredible job giving a performance that serves both as a masterclass in comedic timing as well as a genuinely compelling portrait of a man whose world is falling apart. It's strange to say it is humorous to watch his life fall apart, but it genuinely is even as you begin to feel for him as he struggles to run away from a past that is inevitably going to catch up with him. The strength of the film comes from the characters and the way that they all are attempting to navigate a situation that elicits laughter from it's audience while have deadly serious implications for them.
The strength of the relationships between the characters make this film shine
While the background on most of the characters is minimal, this slice of life narrative best serves the type of story that is being told. Every interaction feels fresh and exhilarating even in the slow moments. Virginia Newcomb as Lydia Olsen confronting her husband about the lies he is telling and her stunned realization at the truth gave a necessary grounding to establish the stakes of what is going on. She becomes a good point of reference for the audience as to how anyone would respond upon learning a shocking detail about someone you thought you knew. Sarah Baker as Officer Dudley who is just looking forward to closing the case and getting a celebratory quiche is fantastic. She echoes Frances McDormand as Marge Gunderson in Fargo as a straightforward, no-nonsense type of person who is almost boringly competent especially in relation to the bizarre nature of the situation that she finds herself in. This juxtaposition is refreshing and humorous. Also a standout is Roy Wood Jr. who elicits the biggest laugh towards the end of the film when all has been revealed and he observes a tv advertisement that now is darkly funny in retrospect.
However, the core of the story is about Zeke and Earl. They both react in different ways based on their own separate circumstances which provides a good balance to the story. Zeke has a family and wants to preserves that even as he lies about everything in order to keep the peace. Earl is a loner and initially considers leaving town immediately. Only when talking with Zeke does he stay to help deal with the fallout of the crisis. The scenes between the two of them are fantastic as they both compliment and contrast with each other very well. It is a shame that Earl disappears for the last part of the film even though it does make sense that Zeke has to address some of the problems by himself. It might have added to the tension and strength of that final climatic scene had Earl been present as well. He would have served an important role as the only other person that would have been in the know about what was happening. That is a small criticism and doesn't detract from what is still a fantastic glimpse into just a few people's lives trying to deal with an unimaginable situation.
If you are skeptical of why this situation is unimaginable, then read on as I am going to spoil what happened. For those wanting to remain clean for when they see this themselves, please do try to seek this one out in the limited release that it has.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
Okay....let's pony up and talk about the ending
So they've been having sex with their horse. And that's how their friend got killed. This is darker than I feel like many people may be ready for because once you stop laughing it really is a terrifying thing that happened. The shame that the main characters feel and guilt at their being responsible is evident. Specifically, the end scene with them all sitting around the kitchen table is incredibly well executed. The way the camera moves to show that Zeke's leg is shaking uncontrollably as the truth comes out and he can no longer salvage the situation is genuinely well-executed. It's tense and emotionally charged unlike man other "face the music" scenes that I have seen in recent memory. It is this perverse and dark truth being brought to light that was thoroughly engaging. It is funny to then see Zeke just attempt to run away from the situation but it never loses sight of that emotional core of people's lives being destroyed.
This film has more on its mind than I think just being silly. It feels like an honest portrayal of a small group of people in a small town who are caught up in a whirlwind of both tragedy and comedy. The fact that one of the emotional moments towards the end is Dick's wife learning that her husband is dead and having a sad moment where she discovers an old Arby's bag in her trash that he ordered makes this explicit: this is a horrible way to die and would be horrible for one's loved ones to deal with that. When followed up with an end scene between Zeke and Earl talking about what will happen when they end up going nowhere while running from this problem gives an added emotional resonance. There is an excellent joke in this same final scene but it doesn't undercut that ever-present melancholy. That balance of mirth and melancholy is what elevates this film into one of the more surprising yet interesting ones of the year.