‘The Death of Dick Long’ is a Beautiful, Bizarre Empathy Litmus Test

Somewhere in the southern backwoods, a half-baked version of “It’s Been a While” by Staind growls half-heartedly from a dimly lit garage. That’s just Pink Freud – the name of the after school rock band composed of three vaping, Nos-drinking, middle-aged hicks with Asian lettering tattoos and dipshit haircuts. There’s Ezekial “Zeke” (Michael Abott Jr.), and Earl (Andre Hyland), and Dick (played by director Daniel Scheinert), and after Zeke’s daughter Cynthia is put to bed by his wife, Lydia (Virginia Newcomb), the trio howls at the moon under a pitch-black sky and torches fireworks out from their crotches like they’ve got flaming penises. It’s idiotic, juvenile, asinine – also beautiful, in like, a fucked up sort of way.

But what can one expect other than “beautiful in a fucked up sort of way” from half of the directing duo comprised of Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan – professionally known as the singular “Daniels.” The masterminds were behind 2016’s glorious and hilarious and heartbreaking Swiss Army Man, a film that chronicled a suicidal young man lost at sea as he finds and falls in love with a talking corpse on his journey home. The Death of Dick Long – Scheinert’s attempt at venturing into the director’s seat solo – shares many similar traits to that which Swiss Army Man sewn before it, but finds itself firmly planted in reality as opposed to the fantastical realism Swiss Army Man embraced prior. 

In Scheinert’s solo vehicle, two rednecks become caught at the epicentre of a wild night gone awry, and The Death of Dick Long offers up a touching, affectionate portrait of white trash in something akin to the Empathy Olympic Games, which tests your ability to understand the complexity of human weakness amidst an otherwise absurd plot.

Dick Long writhes around limply, bloodied, in the back of Zeke’s car like a redneck Mr. Orange, his crotch and lower regions particularly reddened as Earl and Zeke argue inanely about looking for signs. Eventually, they reach the hospital and unload Dick’s barely-moving body just outside of the ER, before high-tailing it out of there once he’s found by a doctor leaving for the night. It’s immediately confusing and unclear as to why the two men would abandon their friend to die alone outside of a hospital – if it weren’t because, perhaps, they all have something to hide. Something happened that night after the band practice and fireworks tomfoolery that they don’t want police or doctors to discover they had any affiliation with. Something that they had, up until this point, done a very admirable job of hiding.

So, Zeke and Earl return home, Earl openly contemplating skipping town to his clueless girlfriend, Lake (Sunita Mani), as Zeke attempts to haphazardly work his way back to normalcy. That’s all interrupted by Zeke’s  nosy daughter, Cynthia (Poppy Cunningham), a young girl so inquisitive she’ll work nicely as birth control for anyone watching the film who was maybe on the fence about having kids, along with Dick’s discarded wallet and Zeke’s blood-drenched backseat. Soon, there are too many loose ends to tie up between two simple guys who’d never had to think much harder than what Nickelback song Pink Freud might try and cover next. As more puzzle pieces begin fitting into place between Zeke’s ineffective whitewashing to Lydia and two cops, Officer Dudley and Sherriff Spencer (Sarah Baker and Janelle Cochrane) and Dick’s enlightening autopsy results, the closer Zeke comes to spilling a dark secret that has been kept steadfastly between himself, Earl, and Dick.

Then about halfway through the film, the bombshell drops: the three men have been practising bestiality on Zeke’s horse, Comet, for years – years before Zeke met Lydia, who is the first unfortunate soul to whom Zeke reveals all, as pressures mount from his family and the police in his failing attempts to cover his tracks. The night after band practice and fireworks, the trio ventured to Zeke’s barn to perform their heinous acts, and this is when Dick was literally fucked to death by Comet (the doctors at the hospital find his anus haemorrhaged and horse semen in his colon). Suddenly, this goofy noir turns into a bizarre, upsetting tragedy; watching Lydia viciously withdraw in revulsion from the man she loved and thought she knew; watching Zeke positively break in half as he talks to his daughter before Lydia kicks him out and internally wrestles with his own perversions. 

And now, we are forced to continue on with this story through the eyes of a protagonist we recoil from with disgust, a character another story would use as the dehumanised punchline or as a one-off joke never returned to. In The Death of Dick Long, a horse-fucker is our tragic lead character, a broken man who must attempt to rebuild his life after the worst parts of himself are revealed to everyone he loves. It’s a fascinating, distressing turn of events, and nothing surprising coming from one of the minds behind a film where our incel lead smooches a dead body and uses his decomposing penis as a compass. It’s interesting to find ourselves suddenly reckoning with the fact that bestiality exists – people into bestiality are real people, with families and friends and lives that would potentially be destroyed if anyone ever found out. The consequences of an oft-used shock value gag become very tangible, wrapping our heads around the humanity in something we once saw as inhumane.

The performances from a majority unknown cast are outstanding, chiefly from the actors who play Lydia and Earl. Virginia Newcomb’s doll-faced expressiveness packs enough power to emote the pain and confusion of finding out the love of your life has a demented dark side you don’t have the strength to comprehend; Andrew Hyland consistently hilarious as the perfect deadpan, vape-puffing lovechild of numerous Danny McBride iterations and comedian Kyle Mooney’s character Chris from Good Neighbor Stuff. And on top of that, Michael Abbott Jr. adeptly weaves the necessary shame, guilt, and sorrow into his performance as Zeke, truly a tormented soul as opposed to hilarious exaggeration.

But the film’s fondness for southern backwater ways trickles into its framing of humanity in bestiality, something those of us who would lean towards turning rednecks into caricatures might mark as a notable trait. The film works both as a reckoning of the deeply flawed nature of all humans and of the pre-conceived notions held towards white trash. While it’s easy to scoff at initially, these characters can’t wholly be defined by an affinity for energy drinks, Confederate flags as careless décor, and early 2000s hard rock – they aren’t just stereotypes, they’re as problematic and complex as the rest of us.

“People sure are inscrutable on their insides, huh?” Officer Dudley ruminates to Sheriff Spencer, once the curious case of the horse-fuckers has closed. Indeed, it’s a line which could be seen as the entire foundation for The Death of Dick Long to rest – a film partially inspired by insane real-world events. People might look one way on the outside, but the insides are something we can barely grasp, even when it seems like they’ve been laid bare for the world to see. Stereotypes are a simplistic pill to swallow compared to the ugly intricacies of true human nature. What starts out as a black-humoured whodunnit turns into an uncomfortable character study in empathising with something that feels beyond our ability to empathise, and succeeds in creating a narrative more interested in expanding our capacity for human connection than solving the titular mystery of the death of Dick Long.

by Brianna Zigler

Brianna Zigler is a graduate in Film-Video and Writing from Penn State University with big plans and not a lot of planning. She loves horror, absurdism, Twin Peaks, is a die-hard Wes Anderson fan, and currently has almost 250 movies in her watchlist. Her favorite films are What We Do in the ShadowsA Serious ManLord of the Rings: The Return of the KingSwiss Army Man, and Suspiria. You can follow her on Twitter @briannazigs

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