All I knew about Kirsten Johnson’s new documentary Dick Johnson Is Dead going in, besides it having been a hit at this year’s Sundance, was its premise: to help process that her elderly father will inevitably die, Johnson has him play out numerous death scenes, filming exaggerated versions of the ways his life could eventually end. Curious to see what such a concept would look like in practice (but sensing the promise of dark comedy), I circled its Netflix release date in my calendar. Now, having seen it, I can confidently say its full impact was not something I could have envisioned— it may have even taken Johnson by surprise. The emotional stakes of her relationship with her father are so high that no amount of gallows humor could lessen the pain of his passing, and with each fake death, knowing that someday it’ll happen for real only gets more unbearable.
Dick Johnson, a retired psychiatrist in his mid-80s, has recently begun suffering from dementia. Having lost her mother to Alzheimer’s a decade before, Johnson is intimately familiar with the reality of this diagnosis, and neither she nor her father are ready to accept it. So, they set out to make a movie about him dying on repeat, in a series of violent, controlled accidents, as Dick begins his own slow march to disappearance. As the film progresses and life between the scenes eclipses any focus on the scenes themselves, we grasp the true aim of Johnson’s project: capture the joyful, loving man her father is before it becomes the man he once was.
As much as description is accurate, it also doesn’t entirely do the film justice— its delicate mixture of tones is too difficult to capture in any one synopsis. There’s humor in the death scenes, joie de vivre in the exploration of Dick’s worldview, and poignancy in Johnson’s observations about how we process dying. Perhaps most remarkable is how these distinct feelings coalesce instead of clash. Dark comedy often draws its strength from the feeling of laughter being wrong, but because of the profundity of the father-daughter bond at its core, any direction this film takes you in feels valid. There’s a funeral scene that captures this perfectly— even in the face of genuine, moving sadness, no amount of restraint can prevent you from breaking out into belly laughs.
Even if the reason for it is incredibly clear, I think it’s inevitable that audiences feel like they got less of the fake-deaths premise than they expected, and for many that will give the experience a disappointing tinge. Personally, if there’s one wish I had for this film, it’s that Johnson had leaned further into the urge to incorporate others’ perspectives, something she only flirts with from time to time. But the complaint is truly minor— Dick Johnson Is Dead is a unique, touching cinematic experience, in a year when those have been in relatively short supply.
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