Producer: Jonathan Wang, Daniel Scheinert and Melodie Sisk
Director: Daniel Scheinert
Writer: Billy Chew
Stars: Michael Abbott Jr., Virginia Newcomb, Andre Hyland, Sarah Baker, Jess Weixler, Poppy Cunningham, Roy Wood Jr., Sunita Mani, Janelle Cochrane and Daniel Scheinert
Studio: A24 Films
The wild audacity of “Swiss Army Man,” the Paul Dano-Daniel Radcliffe oddity that Daniel Scheinert made in collaboration with Daniel Kwan three years ago, is not equaled by this solo directorial effort, a redneck tragicomedy written by Billy Chew that apparently wants to transport a “Fargo” vibe from the upper Midwest of Minnesota and North Dakota to the Alabama backwoods. Unlike the film that serves as its inspiration, however, this one is condescending to its characters, turning them into the butt of its jokes, so to speak—objects of ridicule and, in the end, distaste.
The plot focuses on Zeke Olsen (Michael Abbot, Jr.) and Earl Wyeth (Andre Hyland), two yokel pals who have a wild night with a third stooge, Dick Long (Scheinert), making loud noises rehearsing as a garage band they call Pink Freud. After setting aside their instruments they turn to dope and alcohol and apparently slip into full blotto mode, since when Zeke and Earl wake up they find Dick inanimate and decidedly bloodied up. They recall nothing of what happened.
Terrified of the thought of having to explain their lost night, the two make the mistake of dumping Dick off in the parking lot of the local hospital, where the doctor (Roy Wood Jr.) will pronounce him dead and call in the police—elderly Sheriff Spenser (Janelle Cochrane), who hobbles about with a cane, and enthusiastic Deputy Dudley (Sarah Baker), who’s anxious to please. Since among their bad choices Zeke and Earl decided to relieve Dick of his identification before dropping him off, he’s officially a John Doe, and it will be some time before his wife Jane (Jess Weixler) learns of her hubby’s fate, wondering whether he’s off with another woman.
Most of the action from this point centers on Zeke, who finds that his car is all bloody from transporting Dick and begins making up lies to his wife Lydia (Virginia Newcomb) to cover things up; when he tells her it’s been stolen, she reports the theft to the cops, who will come to investigate. Naturally he and Earl will eventually have to get rid of the vehicle, disposing of it in a lake where it initially refuses to sink (a reference, no doubt, to the famous scene in “Psycho”). He also has to prevent his darling little daughter Cynthia (Poppy Cunningham), who’s heard a few too many of his conversations with Earl, from inadvertently spilling the beans.
Meanwhile Earl is preparing to leave town, taking along his girlfriend Lake (Sunita Mani), who sees him frantically packing stuff into his car because of what he enigmatically refers to as an emergency. By the time he’s ready to depart his motel room, though, the truth will have come out, largely as the result of the lies that pile up as Zeke twists himself into knots in ever more frantic attempts to keep what happened a secret.
The ultimate revelation of what actually occurred is meant, one supposes, to be both shocking and grimly hilarious: it certainly has a disastrous effect on Zeke’s family life. That’s all part of a final act that turns what had been a goofily demented comedy of errors into something much more serious, combining almost sappy elements with what’s presumably intended as a skewered commentary on the reality of hayseed masculinity. The payoff, quite frankly, doesn’t jell at all with the juvenile rambunctiousness of what’s preceded, and a throwaway final twist makes everything inconsequential anyway.
The actors, it should be noted, throw themselves into the material with gusto. Abbott and Newcomb bear the heaviest load, with Hyland taking a more laid-back approach as the nonchalant Earl, for whom stupidity seems a default setting; but Cochrane and Baker have good rapport as the cops, who—while nearly as characterful as Marge Gunderson—are far from the dim bulbs one might expect. The technical crew—production designer Ali Rubinfield, costumer Rachel Stringfellow and cinematographer Ashley Connor—succeed in giving the visuals a suitably grubby look.
One can discern what Chew and Scheinert were aiming for with “The Death of Dick Long”—a raucous comedy that provokes gasps and laughs by piling loopy mistake on loopy mistake before abruptly offering a shocking revelation with more serious ramifications. But the first part of the picture isn’t as funny as it should be, and the major turn causes it to crumble completely. After “Swiss Army Man,” it’s a real disappointment.