There’s a certain breed of scuzzy inept criminal yokel — he’s the sap trying to hide what he did, but doing it in such an amateur way that his scheme devolves into a shambolic mess — who has become inseparable, in movies, from a kind of downscale-heartland-of-America hipster satire. The Coen brothers, in a number of their films (“Blood Simple,” “Burn After Reading”), have been the smirking poets of this genre — “Fargo,” without a doubt, is the “Citizen Kane” of the form — but the Coens aren’t alone. One thinks of the hillbilly noir of “A Simple Plan,” or the out-of-their-depths druggie thieves of “Killing Them Softly.” “The Death of Dick Long” is a scruffy mongrel of an indie thriller made very much in that tradition. The distinguishing quality of its jokey, can-you-believe-this? tone is that the two millennial hayseeds at its center are so richly incompetent that they seem to be inventing a new low place on the totem pole of backwoods idiocy.
Zeke (Michael Abbott Jr.) and Earl (Andre Hyland), who live in small-town Alabama, are enjoying an after-hours rehearsal of their rock ‘n’ roll band, and it’s always fun (though rare in movies) to hear a talentless guitar-and-drums ensemble that actually sounds like one. The practice session having ended, Zeke and Earl settle in with their bandmate, Dick, to do some partying, kicking off their revel with the invitation, “Want to get weird?” What follows is a montage of shot-gunned beers, dope-smoking, and peeing on the campfire, but trust me, no one in the audience has any idea how weird these dudes are about to get.
Suddenly, we jump to a fractious midnight car ride, with Dick unconscious in the back seat, bleeding profusely, and Zeke and Earl freaking the hell out. It’s a moment that recalls that first cut in “Reservoir Dogs” to Tim Roth bleeding in the back of the getaway car, and that’s a sign that the director, Daniel Scheinert, is going to play things relatively straight — which he does, even as you can just about hear him chortling off-camera. Pulling up to a hospital, Zeke and Earl dump Dick’s body on the road in front of the emergency room, and the question burning in our brains is: What foul play is this? Before long, Dick, in the hospital, expires (his gut has been perforated, and he has bled to death), and Zeke and Earl are acting an awful lot like the ones who killed him.
In 2016, Scheinert was the co-director (along with Daniel Kwan) of “Swiss Army Man,” a laboriously surreal and demented conversation piece that was the love-it-or-hate-it sensation of that year’s Sundance Film Festival. I was one of the haters; to me, it was a self-adoring absurdist remake of “Weekend at Bernie’s,” and I found it unwatchable. But Scheinert, working without his partner (they’re known, in their music-video work, as “Daniels”), and from a script by Billy Chew, now proves himself to be a filmmaker of intermittent wily skill. “The Death of Dick Long” is a redneck mystery-jape that pranks the audience, though in a way that sneaks up on you.
Early on, Scheinert stages a morning-after sequence with enough grisly comedy and tension to earn a Hitchcock merit badge. Zeke, a handsome fellow in blondish dyed curls, has to drive his inquisitive grade-school daughter, Cynthia (Poppy Cunningham), to school. The two have already had a conversation about Dick’s wallet (right off, we can tell that keeping things close to the vest isn’t exactly Zeke’s strong suit), and Zeke then looks in the back seat and sees that it’s soaked with blood. So he lays a blanket over it. Talk about a simple plan! By the time he and Cynthia stop at a gas-station convenience store, the blood has soaked through. But it’s only when they’re inside the store that he notices the back of her dress, which is now covered in blood. The sequence that follows is the quintessence of suspense comedy, to the point that when Cynthia tells a local cop that her dad found a wallet, we can believe it when Zeke hands it over.
He’s trying to conceal a murder, or so it seems, and he has given the dead man’s wallet to a law officer. A move exceeded in clumsiness only by Zeke and Earl’s attempt to sink that telltale car into a pond. Yet part of the weirdly plausible joke of “The Death of Dick Long” is that the spirit of missing what’s right in front of your eyes extends from the criminals to the cops — in this case, a crusty tippling sheriff (Janelle Cochrane) who ambles about on a cane, and a wide-eyed officer in training, played by the scene-stealing Sarah Baker. To call these two clueless wouldn’t be quite right. They’ve got some clues; they’re just a little slow about putting them together.
The film leads us to believe, for a bit, that it might be replaying the dicier dimensions of “Deliverance.” But no, it’s stranger than that. Scheinert has studied the sacred texts of “Fargo,” “A Simple Plan,” etc., but there’s another film he draws on, though even to say it might be considered a spoiler. For the sake of the critical record, though, I’ll mention it, however obliquely: The central (hidden) conceit of “The Death of Dick Long” seems to have been lifted directly from the disturbing 2007 documentary “Zoo.” Scheinert turns the weirdness of “Zoo” into a kind of metaphor — for all the buried things that men want to do. Or maybe it’s no metaphor at all. Maybe it’s just a case of a young director treating the mystique of the out of bounds as his calling card. If so, mission accomplished. With “The Death of Dick Long,” Daniel Scheinert proves himself just good enough a filmmaker to have earned the attention he’s courting.