Sundance 2019: The Death of Dick Long, by David Bax
Even if you’re not familiar with the term “butt rock,” you’re definitely familiar with some of the genre’s luminaries and, in any case, you can probably conjure up some idea of the sound based on the name alone. Referring to overly polished and underly intelligent post-Pearl Jam hard rock bands like Nickelback and Puddle of Mudd, the moniker was, unsurprisingly, originally intended to be derogatory. But fans of the genre are exactly the kind of people who would embrace such a name. And Daniel Scheinert’s The Death of Dick Long–whose main characters are introduced playing a clumsy cover of “It’s Been Awhile” by butt rock pioneers Staind–is about just those kinds of dudes (obviously, they’re dudes).
In small town Alabama, Zeke (Michael Abbott Jr.), Earl (Andre Hyland) and Dick (Scheinert) are three friends who spend their evenings at “band practice” in Zeke’s basement. These sessions appear to be little more than an excuse to hang out with friends and get drunk but one night, things get out of hand after Earl queries, “Y’all wanna get weird?” and Dick ends up dead. Now Zeke and Earl have to rub their meager brain cells together to cover up their involvement in the grisly misadventure.
We aren’t initially told the particulars of Dick’s demise, though details gradually emerge. But The Death of Dick Long is less about the mystery and more about the surviving band members’ numbskulled plans to keep themselves out of trouble with the law and, in Zeke’s case, with his wife, even though they don’t know anything about what they’re doing outside of what they’ve learned in movies. Cleaning Dick’s blood out of Zeke’s backseat, the boys can’t help but bring up Pulp Fiction (wouldn’t you?), leading to a hilarious exchange in which Harvey Keitel is confused for Anthony Kiedis. Luckily for them, the cops (Janelle Cochrane and Sarah Baker) don’t have much more of a clue. A fair amount of the comedy of The Death of Dick Long comes from just how close everyone always is to figuring out what happened, if only they’d think to ask the obvious questions. The fulcrum of the movie’s plot is, who will out-stupid whom?
However, as with his previous film, co-directorial effort Swiss Army Man, Scheinert has more on his mind than raunchy jokes about idiots (not that there aren’t plenty of those, and good ones too). As stupid as Zeke and Earl are, there’s an honesty about male companionship to their behavior. Fucking with your friends while they’re drunk is a time-honored tradition among men, after all. But one of The Death of Dick Long‘s surprisingly numerous emotional turning points is Zeke’s admission, “I’m pathetic.”
As our society lurches laboriously toward gender equality, standards of masculinity left too long unquestioned begin to be forced into the light, recognized for the moldy remnants that they are. For a raucous comedy whose very title includes a sophomoric joke, The Death of Dick Long becomes, at is goes on, a profoundly sad elegy for a moronic maleness that will eventually no longer have an excuse to exist (though that expiration date has been regrettably extended by the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court). To be sure, Zeke is just as pathetic as he says he is. But it’s too late–and he’s too stupid–to do anything about it.