Premise: A daughter helps her father prepare for the end of his life.
It’s not often that a film can be simultaneously considered a documentary, a drama, and a comedy, but director Kirsten Johnson somehow manages to achieve that feat with Dick Johnson Is Dead. Movies can be used as a director’s way to put their own personal ideas and experiences out into the world: Truffaut channeled his early adolescence in The 400 Blows; Fellini expressed his struggles with the creative process with 8 ½; and Spike Lee used his experiences with racial injustice for Do the Right Thing. Johnson’s latest is not only a loving tribute to her father, but an examination of the grieving process, even when the aggrieved is still alive.
Yes, the eponymous Dick Johnson is the director’s father, who has recently struggled with dementia and memory loss after the death of his wife. The film, spanning over a year, sees him go from retiring from his psychiatry practice in Seattle to moving in with his daughter in New York, and his mental deterioration becomes more and more evident from beginning to end. Dick takes a laid back, conversational approach to its content, and a good portion of it is spent simply observing its subject at rest. And yet, there is an emotional weight to Johnson’s decision to train the camera closely on Dick’s face: given everything that’s been revealed about him, we can see the gears turning behind his eyes, the struggle to maintain his focus and composure.
Most notable about the film, though, are the comedic elements that Johnson sprinkles in at various moments. Johnson goes through a similar process of a director producing a fictional film by building sets, extensively rehearsing, hiring stunt doubles, and wardrobe and makeup professionals, all in the name of creating fictionalized scenarios where her father is inadvertently killed. One scene sees an air conditioner fall on his head as he walks down the street. One sees him falling down a flight of stairs. While these scenes thematically stand out from the rest of the film, they offer a glimpse into the director’s coping process as she prepares for the inevitable. Look, we all grieve in our own unique ways, and Johnson’s just happens to be to fictitiously murder her father repeatedly.
One aspect of Dick Johnson Is Dead that I was particularly struck by was Kirsten’s camerawork. Rather than placing a camera on a tripod or setting up a talking head-style interview, Johnson often uses a handheld camera for many of the more intimate moments. Some of those occurrences may have been borne out of necessity based on the shooting locations, but the decision makes the film feel like it’s being told more uniquely from her perspective. There are many moments where Johnson will shift the camera or put it down without any concern for composition or framing, often committing the cardinal sin of getting the boom mic or any background operators on camera. The candid style helps add to the film’s personal nature, making the viewer feel like another member of the family, rather than a passive bystander.
Of course, the film wouldn’t succeed without the warm and friendly relationship between Kirsten and Dick. It’s their closeness that keeps the simulated death sequences from feeling mean-spirited or exploitative, and what makes his inevitable real-life death all the more devastating. Dick never seems to question Kirsten’s intentions or visions for the project, no matter how strange it becomes. He’s a light-hearted, good-natured character whose support never wavers for his daughter. Surely Kirsten has a lifetime of happy memories with her father, but Dick Johnson Is Dead becomes a visual record of their relationship, which she can (thankfully) share with the world. I have family members that have struggled with dementia, and while I’ve only witnessed it from a distance, I imagine this film will hit especially hard for the millions of people that have experienced Kirsten’s dilemma firsthand.
One of the most powerful scenes arrives at the end, when Kirsten stages a fake funeral in a packed church, complete with a dummy corpse and eulogies and tributes from family, friends, and former patients. One could imagine an equally full memorial when the time finally comes for real. The final moment in particular sums up the film, and the duo’s relationship perfectly, becoming the first and only film from 2020 so far that has brought me to tears. Who would’ve imagined that a documentary in which an elderly man comically bleeds to death could have such emotional poignancy? Dick Johnson Is Dead, much like life itself, contains multitudes.
About the Writer: Ben Sears is a life-long Indianapolis resident, husband, and father of two boys, as well as a contributing writer on ObsessiveViewer.com. Aside from watching movies and television, Ben enjoys photography (bensearsphotography.com) and running marathons, but never at the same time. That would be difficult.