Dead Dicks (2019)

It’s not every film that is prefaced with text showing a legitimate toll-free number to call (in Canada) “if you or someone you know might be at risk of self-harm or self-injury” – but then, Dead Dicks opens with a graphic depiction of suicide, as Richie (Heston Horwin, Rock Steady Row), alone among the fractured artworks and domestic detritus in his apartment, pulls a plastic bag over his head. Or almost alone – for once the deed is done, and Richie sits there immobile and very dead, a blurry figure passes across the foreground of the screen.

Having spent most of her adolescent and adult years nursing older brother Richie through his chronic depression, derangement and dissociation, Becca (Jillian Harris) has won a place on the Graduate Certificate Programme in Neuroscience Nursing. It may be a way out of her ‘unique and challenging family circumstances’, even if the experience gained from those is also what helped her get accepted onto the course. So Becca heads up to her brother’s apartment late at night to break the difficult news that she will be moving away to another part of the country, but finds Richie’s corpse – or multiple Richie corpses – and another very live Richie reassurring her that he, indeed everything, is fine. He explains that each time he kills himself, a copy of him is reborn through an anatomical-, even anal-, looking portal that has appeared above his bed. “So I can’t die,” Richie says, with manic glee, having momentarily forgotten the despair that drove him to suicide in the first place. “So I’m like immortal.”

More suicides and deaths will follow, even if the film remains essentially a mere three-hander, with Richie, Becca and the disgruntled downstairs neighbour Matt (Matt Keyes) locked into a Sartrean hell of other people from which there can be no easy escape. At the centre of it all is Richie’s cycling disorder, and the impact it has on his dearest, or even just his nearest. For the high-concept premise that propels Dead Dicks also serves as an obvious metaphor for the spiralling loops, the ups and downs, of a psychiatric condtion in which one life-or-death crisis is followed by another, ad nauseam. As Becca tells Richie: “You know the saying: repeating the same patterns and expecting different results. You’ve done this a few times now, right? You keep coming back. Nothing changes.”

Like Free Willy (1993) or The Big Red One (1980), Chris Bavota and Lee Paula Springer’s feature debut comes with a title that smacks of innuendo. Here there are lots of dead Richies, piling up like the cloned cadavers in Triangle (2009), Moon (2009) or Blood Punch (2004) – but the only time our repeatedly renate antihero is actually called ‘dick’, the word is used as a term of abuse rather than as a diminutive form of his name. “You dick!”, says Becca as she sits beside Richie on the sofa trying to tell him about her acceptance into the nursing course, only to be interrupted and undermined by a very loud fart from her big brother – even if she fails to realise that he has also just died (again). This sequence encapsulates the shifting tone of Dead Dicks, which goes rapidly from coarse to absurd to deadly serious in moments, and always returns to the body. 

Similarly the oozing, gaping arsehole on Richie’s bedroom wall both shits out resurrected versions of the recently dead and, like all the pieces that disturbed artist Richie has displayed in his apartment, reflects his own negative self-image. Here domestic tragedy is anatomised, and a psychological scenario presents as body horror. As the focus drifts between troubled Richie and his younger sister, we see that both members of this broken family are equally stuck in the orbit of one another’s guilt and conflicted love. So, hidden beneath the goofy plotting of this inventive indie are themes of real gravity. For while it is clear from the very outset that Dead Dicks is concerned with the more self-destructive aspects of mental illness, it also dramatises how easily any and every one of us can be drawn into that deep, dark hole, perhaps never to emerge entirely unscathed.

© Anton Bitel