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David Arquette Will Break Your Heart in the New ‘Scream’

The actor’s own complicated path to redemption is woven into this sequel’s emotional portrait of the beloved goofball cop Dewey, who’s now a shell of his former self

Warning: This article contains spoilers for the new Scream film. If you don’t want to know what happens in the movie, perhaps you’d like to read this piece about why everyone’s fighting about Wordle instead.

Dewey was always the comic relief in the Scream films. Sure, he was a deputy sheriff, but nobody in the town of Woodsboro took him seriously. How could you? With his goofy manner and general incompetence, it was difficult to have much faith in the guy, especially when a serial killer was on the loose. In a typical slasher flick, Dewey would be someone who’d get slayed pretty quickly — the dummies always get offed, especially if they’re cops — but there was something lovable about him that made it impossible to imagine that being his fate. Dewey wasn’t bright, but he was sweet and loyal, willing to do anything to protect those around him. Nobody wanted Dewey to die, and he never did, somehow making it out alive repeatedly over the course of four movies.

This weekend, the fifth installment, also called Scream, hits theaters, and one of its enticements for longtime fans is that the franchise’s three central characters are back. But with all due respect to Sidney Prescott and Gale Weathers, I found myself drawn to Dewey. Partly, it’s because of what’s become of the character since 2011’s Scream 4. But partly, it’s also because of the extratextual information I bring to Dewey. When you watch this Scream, you may think about David Arquette as much as you think about Dewey.

Arquette, of course, has been playing the character since the 1996 film, the youngest kid in a famous acting/performing family. (Two of his sisters are Rosanna and Patricia, but all of his siblings are actors.) In the early 1990s, Arquette had been in comedies like Airheads, but Scream made him a star. The original was revolutionary for its time, satirizing everything that had grown tired about horror films within the structure of a horror movie itself. Scream was the story of Sidney (Neve Campbell) battling a mysterious killer in a mask, with Dewey doing his best to save the day while falling in love with Gale (Courteney Cox), a ratings-obsessed TV news reporter. Gale was cynical, while Dewey was a dope — no wonder they were a perfect match.

As the series went along, each new film extending the franchise’s meta qualities while increasingly self-consciously swallowing its own tail, Sidney, Gale and Dewey became the central figures, again and again finding themselves in the middle of a killing spree. Sidney learned how to cope with her trauma, Gale wrote books about the crime waves, and Dewey… well, Dewey spent the sequels pining for Gale (or trying to hold onto Gale once they’re a couple), every so often getting stabbed by the bad guys. Dewey was a punching bag but also a pin cushion, always the butt of the joke. The fact that Arquette and Cox married a few years after the first Scream only made Dewey and Gale’s opposites-attract relationship that much cuter. They didn’t seem like the most obvious couple in real life — she was the ultra-popular, polished Friends superstar, while he seemed an oddball manchild — or on screen. But somehow it worked.

When we first see Dewey in the new Scream, he looks like hell and is living in a trailer park. He’s all alone, pathetically watching Gale, now his ex-wife, on her morning news program so that he can still feel close to her. But when a new generation of Woodsboro teens come to see him because there’s a new serial killer in town, he doesn’t want anything to do with it. A while ago, Dewey had been promoted to sheriff, but since then he’s been fired, and with his limp and generally haggard expression, he comes across as a washout — a cautionary tale about what can happen to nice guys who never quite get their shit together. To be fair, though, all those stabbings probably took their toll, too.

It’s hard not to project Arquette’s life story onto Dewey’s sad downward spiral. Although he’s kept working steadily, Arquette has never been able to land a part as meaningful as Dewey in the last few decades. Substance abuse has been an issue, and in 2013 he and Cox divorced after a few years of being separated. (In 2015, he married journalist Christina McLarty.) And as his acting career has flatlined, he’s turned his energies to wrestling, a sport he’s loved since boyhood. But that proved complicated, too: In 2000, while promoting his wrestling comedy Ready to Rumble, he appeared on WCW Thunder, where it was predetermined that he’d win the world championship. Fans were furious, prompting Arquette to seek redemption by becoming a legitimate wrestler. A lot of people dismissed his career switch as a joke or a stunt.

Arquette’s odyssey to become a legitimate wrestler was chronicled in the 2020 documentary You Cannot Kill David Arquette, which was a sad, fascinating look at a past-his-prime actor subjecting his middle-aged body to incredible punishment to prove his reverence for the sport. Arquette fights at small, shitty local events, attracting rubberneckers who want to see a washed-up star strain and struggle. Worse, the film illustrated just how ill-conceived this rehabilitation tour was. He’s had a heart attack, and as his psychiatrist puts it, “His brain isn’t connected in a typical way.” Not unlike the Mickey Rourke film The Wrestler, about a fictional has-been who’d rather die than stop competing, Arquette came across as a tragic figure. Was this all for publicity? Was he trying to be embraced by the wrestling fans who’d discounted this Hollywood pretty boy? Would he make it out alive? Cox appears in the documentary — by all accounts, they remain close friends — and her worried looks magnified our own apprehension. Dude, what are you doing?

But even if it was all a cheap publicity gimmick, You Cannot Kill David Arquette underlined his real vulnerabilities and anxieties — his feeling of being a disappointment to his famous family, his sense that the world viewed him as a loser. A sometimes volatile individual, Arquette mostly came across as painfully fragile, about to break at any moment, either mentally or physically. He would probably be very difficult to be friends with, but from afar — the way most of us are in relation to movie stars — it was easy to root for him and hope he found some sort of peace.

I’m not sure how much these real-world details factored into the new Scream’s conception of Dewey, but I couldn’t stop making connections between Arquette and his fictional counterpart. In the movie, Dewey ultimately decides to help the teenagers get to the bottom of who this new Ghostface is because, hey, he’s a good guy. But his selflessness is also mixed with the emotional link he has to those long-ago murders — and the bond he shares with Sidney and Gale. As horrific as that past was, it’s the only thing that gives his now-rudderless life meaning, and so he finds himself sucked into another murder mystery.

It’s telling that the Dewey we see in the new Scream isn’t particularly funny. The guy’s still a bit of a goofball, but the puppy-dog enthusiasm he once displayed seems to have been beaten out of him. Life does that sometimes, and I thought about the alcoholism Arquette has battled and the mental-health struggles that You Cannot Kill David Arquette catalogs. If the documentary was Arquette’s attempt to get people to stop thinking of him as a clown, the new Scream goes one step further. We’d always been encouraged to laugh at silly Dewey, but this sequel gives us a guy we can’t find hilarious. The poor bastard’s too heartbroken and lost to be the comic relief. All those years ago, you could mock him because he was so clueless. Now he’s just a shell of the endearing dweeb he used to be.

All three of Scream’s long-running characters have been transformed by the experience of being in these movies, but Sidney and Gale have mostly gotten savvier and grown more hardened. (In the parlance of lame, patronizing Hollywood buzzwords, they’ve become “strong female characters” who have agency.) But poor Dewey has nothing, and when he and Gale reunite, it’s probably the new film’s most touching moment — not because it’s some beautifully played scene but because you think about Arquette and Cox. Their onscreen and offscreen love affair gave this franchise a little jolt, and now that they’re not together, it’s a reminder of the challenges Arquette has faced personally and professionally in recent times. (By the way, I recognize that the guy has been remarried for years now and has undoubtedly moved forward with his life. But such is the curse of nostalgia that moviegoers can sometimes freeze an actor’s world in exactly the place where we last paid attention to him.)

As a result, I was surprised that of all the people in this new movie, both the new characters and the returning ones, Dewey was who I found myself connecting with most intensely. This sequel — the first since the death of director Wes Craven, who guided the franchise over the years — gets way too hung up on its snarky dissection of horror-movie rules and how everything these days is a reboot or a reimagining, but Dewey provides a little humanity amidst the fanboy excesses. I don’t consider Arquette a great actor, but in this Scream he definitely seems to be communicating something about aging and regret. He conveys it so powerfully that, whether or not he’s pulling from his own life, you feel it acutely.

Which is why I was both disappointed and weirdly okay with what happens to Dewey. During one intense sequence, he’s with some other characters in a hospital, barely holding off Ghostface before escaping. But even though they’re convinced they killed him, Dewey decides not to get into the elevator with his friends, determined to be absolutely sure Ghostface is dead by shooting him in the head. 

Anybody who’s seen a horror movie will know what happens next. Just as Dewey walks over to Ghostface’s slumped body and is about to shoot, he gets a phone call — and when he looks down, he takes his eye off Ghostface, who carves him up in the film’s most gruesome, drawn-out kill. It’s an infuriating moment because Dewey’s stupidity brings about his death — but to the end, that was our foolish, absurd Dewey, the dope who always got stabbed in these movies. 

That it’s Gale calling only makes the murder sting more. Maybe they could have worked it out. Maybe they could have found their way back to each other. Now we’ll never know. From one perspective, the new Scream could be read as Dewey’s belated chance at redemption — a redemption he won’t live to see. Anyone who’s followed David Arquette’s recent career or watched You Cannot Kill David Arquette will notice the parallels between him and his most famous character. Dewey doesn’t make it out alive. I hope Arquette does.