Angelos Angelidis reviews Daniel Scheinert‘s follow-up to Swiss Army Man.
Warning: this review contains descriptions of rape and bestiality.
Following the success of Swiss Army Man (2016), a movie about loneliness, shame and homoeroticism, Daniel Scheinert’s newest film The Death of Dick Long (2019) delves into a darker aspect of American life. Premiering at London’s Sundance Film Festival, Scheinert’s film – penned by Billy Chew – fomented hesitation in me but turned out to be an absolute delight both for its humor and its intellect.
The film follows the death of one of three friends living in a small town in Alabama. After a drunken night out, Dick Long is dumped outside the hospital by his friends Earl (Andre Hyland) and Zeke (Michael Abbott Jr.). Following his death, a police investigation begins while the two friends try to cover up evidence linking Dick’s death back to them. The majority of the film takes place within the twenty-four hours following the incident, charging the plot with panic as Zeke and Earl blunder their way towards vindication.
The police investigation is carried out by Sheriff Spenser (Janelle Cochrane) and the rather inexperienced Officer Dudley (Sarah Baker), whose inability to quickly put the pieces of the puzzle together alongside the foolish decisions and deficient alibis of Zeke and Earl aptly instil elements of comedy in an otherwise tragic story.
Dick’s death – which is initially thought to be a homicide following a brutal rape – turns out to have been caused by a horse. Zeke’s wife Lydia (Virginia Newcomb), after realising that something is wrong with her husband, asks him to come clean. Zeke confesses that he and Earl have been engaging in bestiality with Zeke’s horse for a long time, and that the horse bears responsibility for Dick’s death. The reveal not only causes an earthquake in Zeke and Lydia’s relationship but a huge rupture in what held the family together. The subtleties of everyday life that are so easily overlooked capsize to reveal a hidden underworld of perversity and sexual deviation. Thus, catharsis was not followed by absolution but by a radical reconfiguration of what Zeke’s life was to become.
The movie’s careful balance of darkness and humor does not necessarily present bestiality as the ultimate sin; rather, a lack of transparency or honesty ultimately leads to a dissolution of everything that holds the everyday life of the characters together. This reaches a peak when Dick’s wife visits Zeke in his stable, wondering if her husband is cheating on her while she is patting the very horse that fucked him to death.
An underlying tension of homosexuality is present both in Zeke and Earl’s character development, whose duplicity stems from a deeply repressed desire that goes against societal norms. This subconscious pressure to conform to American ideals of heteronormativity and propriety is in a way an engine of a largely invisible darkness within society, in this case resulting to the death of a friend. This repression is best exemplified by Zeke and Earl’s displays of toxic masculinity. Even if the message of the film is not that repressed homosexual desire leads to your friend dying in a bestiality accident, there is a clear need for the characters to be released from the structures of intolerance and judgement that underlay much of Southern United States, specifically in regards to sexuality, gender or skin colour.
The double-pun title implies the death of the toxic masculinity that leads to the whole situation in the first place. Zeke and Earl flee together and (in my imagination) are free to explore their bromance away from the small-town bigotry and its societal regulations. Life seems to move on as if nothing ever happened and the viewer is left with a deep internal itch. Could this have happened in the real world? Despite the bizarre scenario, the canny camera-work and spot-on acting makes me reckon that Zeke and Earl’s story is more real than mere facets of a scriptwriter’s imagination.