[Review] ‘DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD’ a transcendent film about aging, memory loss, and dying over and over again

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Travis Leamons // Film Critic

DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD

Rated PG-13, 89 minutes.
Director: Kirsten Johnson

Dick Johnson has a problem. It’s a problem that continues to torment humanity. Dying. His daughter, Kirsten, has a solution: kill him. 

DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD is a comes-to-terms documentary about the fragility of life. Rather than be a straightforward memoir of her father’s life, capturing his remaining years as he slowly withers away as age increases and memory fades, Kirsten gets creative. She stages his death – actually, deaths (plural) – in elaborate fashion. In one moment, Dick will be walking down a city sidewalk, and next thing you know, an A/C unit falls from an apartment window knocking him dead. Another time, he’ll be struck in the neck and have a hidden vial of fake blood spurt out of a carotid artery. The maiming isn’t all mayhem, though. Kirsten interposes moments of a heavenly fantasy shoot where her father is having dinner with the likes of Buster Keaton, Sigmund Freud, and Bruce Lee, and dances the night away with his late wife. 

But a lot happens in DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD besides dying. Dick is a loving man who enjoys playing with his grandchildren, pushing them as they swing on a rope in a hayloft, singing joyfully. Kirsten observes this and retreats behind her camera during other ordinary and touching moments:

  • Eating breakfast.
  • Having a slice of a chocolate cake on his 86th birthday.
  • Sitting in the study as he prepares to move from Seattle to live with his daughter in New York. 

Dick has Alzheimer’s disease, and it’s advancing. He’s at that point in life where he can no longer continue to work as a psychologist or take care of himself. Hence the move across the country. Dick had been making mistakes in double-booking patients and drove recklessly through a construction site. Life continues to regress. Memory loss or dementia is a crippling verdict in the trial of life. Having seen what it did to my mother, as she slowly became a prisoner in her own body, I applaud Kirsten’s decision to record both the mundane and the extravagant and her father’s willingness to participate.   

‘DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD’ behind the scenes with director Kirsten Johnson. Courtesy of Netflix.

There is a certain symbiosis in seeing the staged action Kirsten captures on video, as father and daughter play-act with the help of a production crew, stuntpersons, and props. While one would think Dick would be opposed to being the subject of a “death” documentary, where he literally lies in an open casket inside a church, Dick Johnson was more than willing. As a psychologist, he has a different perspective on death, having counseled patients who have witnessed suicides, had suicidal thoughts, or other feelings related to dying.    

Then again, the staging of Dick’s demises presents a lack of authenticity. These are artificial memories Kirsten is creating at the expense of her father. Though the film never directly addresses the issue, Kirsten knows her limits when it comes to decency and not overstepping to the point of being exploitive.

The tone in which the film treads is part of the inherent greatness of DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD. Asking how one should confront death, Kirsten Johnson switches between traditional storytelling to an unorthodox perspective. She clearly loves her father and all that he has accomplished. Going as far as to recall the loss of her mother, the victim of a drunk-driving accident – who also suffered from dementia – and incorporating fleeting moments of her is a testament to this. Kirsten’s mother died young. Dick will die old. 

Death comes from life. If we do not fear losing one another, then what’s the point of living? Kirsten says as much in a voice-over. She’s right. 

DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD is a transcendent documentary in how one woman approaches the finite days she has with her father. Imbued with a profound filmmaking style that gives meaning out of chaos – inside and outside of staging the many deaths of Dick Johnson – we are left with a great film that provides laughter and hope for those wondering how their life stories will end. 

Grade: A

DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD is now available on Netflix.

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