Thursday, September 26, 2019

The Death of Dick Long: Things Go South and Get Weird

Hollywood and indie filmmakers alike just aren’t sure what to make of the South. Culturally, it is a whole different world, but the relatively high poverty rate ought to make Southerners politically exploitable. It is not hard to pick up on the conflicted feelings in Daniel Scheinert’s The Death of Dick Long, which opens tomorrow in New York.

Zeke Olsen digs playing in his southern garage rock band Pink Freud with his pals Earl Wyeth and Dick Long, even though (or because) they are more of a drunken rehearsal group than a gigging professional outfit. After pounding plenty of beers during the course of this fateful night, Long asks his buds: “want to get weird?” That they do, but the audience is mercifully spared the spectacle. Whatever happened, it went terribly awry this time, resulting in Long’s titular death.

Due to the unspeakable circumstances, Long is desperate to cover up their misadventures. Unfortunately, he is even less suited to masterminding a cover-up than the Watergate burglars. He is mostly on his own too, because Wyeth makes it clear he intends to boogie out of town. However, Olsen is more tied to the community through his wife Lydia and their young daughter, whose teacher just happens to be Long’s increasingly concerned wife Jane (actually, she is his widow, but she doesn’t know it yet).

Long tries to dispose of evidence and fabricate an alternate narrative, but his efforts are laughably inept. Fortunately, Sheriff Spenser and Officer Dudley are so polite and southern about things, they do not immediately throw him under the third-degree light. Frankly, Olsen’s wife is probably more suspicious than they are.

It would be unsporting to reveal the big secret, but it is safe to say it conforms to the absolute worst rural southern stereotypical slander. Weirdly though, once Olsen is revealed to the audience, Scheinert and the film start treating him with considerably more compassion. There is genuine empathy for him, as a husband and father who stands to lose his standing as both. Billy Chew’s screenplay even makes an attempt to understand how this all started in the first place. That pivot really elevates the film into something wholly unexpected.

Michael Abbott Jr. portrays Olsen as a sad, slow-witted mess, but his performance evolves into something acutely human. Janelle Cochrane and Sarah Baker seem to be strenuously reaching for Fargo comparisons as Spenser and Dudley, but they still earn a few laughs. However, it is Virginia Newcomb who really takes ownership of the film as Lydia Olsen. Her character’s evolution from anger to sorrow constitutes some really impressive work. Poor Jess Weixler practically disappears from view as the problematically passive and hopeless Jane Long, but Sunita Mani helps liven things up as Wyeth’s wry and earthy girlfriend, Lake Travis.

Clearly, tonal consistency is an issue for the film, but at least the Southern alt rock soundtrack is peppy. Regardless, it is light years superior to Swiss Army Man, which Scheinert co-directed with Daniel Kwan. In fact, it is probably better than you would expect, in large part because it is not as humorous as it has been cracked up to be. Recommended for fans of Sam Raimi and the Coen Brothers at their edgiest, The Death of Dick Long opens tomorrow (9/27) in New York, at the Village East.