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Review: Small-town crime saga ‘The Death of Dick Long’ finds the grace notes in its characters’ stupidity

Andre Hyland and Michael Abbott Jr. in the movie “The Death of Dick Long.”
Andre Hyland and Michael Abbott Jr. in the movie “The Death of Dick Long.”
(A24)

I’m sorry to report that there are no farting corpses in Daniel Scheinert’s “The Death of Dick Long.” This may come as a disappointment to admirers of “Swiss Army Man,” the surreally deranged 2016 comedy that Scheinert wrote and directed with Daniel Kwan, in which a flatulent cadaver turned out to be the best friend (and the best gas-propelled personal watercraft) a depressive castaway could ever hope for. A corpse does surface early on in Scheinert’s new movie, but it makes for lousy company and proves useless at water sports. Its messy emissions are a source of panic rather than delight.

Delight isn’t really on the menu in “The Death of Dick Long.” A Coen-esque deadpan comic noir set in a small Alabama town, the movie begins in the aftermath of a horrific accident, then follows a couple of guys through one catastrophically foolish decision after another. But to his credit, Scheinert has more in mind than scoring points and cheap laughs off his characters and their easy-to-skewer milieu. You brace yourself for a numbing catalog of stupidity — the title isn’t exactly encouraging — and are instead greeted by amusement, suspense and a curious aftertaste of sweetness and melancholy. You might even call it grace.

Admittedly, grace takes a while to show up. Dick Long (played by Scheinert himself) is still alive, and bleeding heavily from the bowels, when we see him being driven, dragged and dumped outside a hospital emergency room one night by two men. They are his close friends, Zeke (Michael Abbott Jr.) and Earl (Andre Hyland), and exactly how Dick came by his fatal wounds is a mystery they have no intention of letting anyone solve. Suffice to say that a long, idyllic night of boozing, vaping, playing Nickelback covers and setting off firecrackers has come to the worst and weirdest possible end.

As morning dawns, Zeke and Earl slip clumsily into damage-control mode. After pocketing Dick’s wallet so as to delay identification of the body, Zeke drives home just in time to slip into bed with his unsuspecting wife, Lydia (Virginia Newcomb). He acts as if nothing’s happened and drives their young daughter, Cynthia (Poppy Cunningham), to school in the family station wagon, quickly throwing a sheet over the bloodied backseat. Meanwhile, Earl, who plans to skip town, swings by to help Zeke dispose of evidence; naturally, their combined efforts make the entire situation conspicuously worse.

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At times their shenanigans escalate to such a ridiculous peak of stupidity that, even allowing that panic may be interfering with the men’s mental faculties, you may want to chuck things at the screen. But gradually, as the camera holds Abbott’s sad eyes and grizzled face in closeup, a fascinating counter-scenario arises: Could Zeke actually, unconsciously want to be found out? What if his central motivating impulse is not guilt but shame? It would be criminal to divulge the secrets lurking beneath Zeke and Earl’s ever-evolving cover story; suffice to say that as much as Scheinert may indulge in clownish white-male stereotypes, he is also interested in plumbing the pained and often unspeakable emotional depths lurking behind them.

He may be even more interested in his female characters, and I imagine the audience will feel the same way. The case of the unidentified corpse falls to a world-weary sheriff (Janelle Cochrane) and the eager-to-please Officer Dudley (Sarah Baker), whose slow but steady grappling with the facts leads her gradually in the right direction. They’re the official anchors of a story in which women consistently do and deserve better than the men in their midst, whether it’s Earl’s helpful neighbor, Lake (Sunita Mani), or Dick’s wife, Jane (a moving Jess Weixler), who suspects her husband of infidelity and doesn’t yet realize she’s a widow.

Best of all might be Lydia, whom Newcomb invests with a terrific energy — fiercely protective, vulnerable and angry all at once — as she reels from the particulars of a situation as imbecilic as it is impossible. You share in her disbelief, and you believe her entirely.

‘The Death of Dick Long’
Rating: R, for pervasive language, disturbing sexual material and brief drug use

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Playing: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood; Arclight Cinemas, Pasadena; Alamo Drafthouse Cinema Downtown Los Angeles

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