Few things hit harder in life than the loss of a parent. For many, comprehending that one of the people who has cared for you through every moment of your life will no longer be there is practically impossible. Such is the basis of Kirsten Johnson’s comically heartfelt documentary Dick Johnson is Dead.
The film acts as many things, be it a psychological exploration of death, or an elaborately orchestrated preparation to help soften the final blow of the inevitable. Perhaps most of all, as admitted by Kirsten herself, the documentary serves as a limited chronicle of the man her father was. Dick has been diagnosed with dementia, the same affliction that stole away her mother’s final years, and Kirsten laments the lack of footage she has of her mother’s real personality. On that basis alone, it’s hard not to get on side with the Johnsons almost immediately.
Of course, the film can only be as likable as its subject, and Dick Johnson is as good-natured as they come. It’s clear how much admiration and affection Kirsten has for her father, yet her film feels refreshingly honest even with such a rose-tinted perspective. Maybe it’s Dick’s wide smile we see throughout, or perhaps it’s his easy warmth that everyone from old flames to furniture removers basks in. Or maybe it’s that Dick Johnson is a purely unproblematic and appealing person. Whether that is the whole truth or not, we get a pretty good view of Dick through his daughter’s eyes and it’s a perspective the audience can easily share.
The stand-out moments are the brutally constructed death sequences that are scattered throughout. Giving the film its black-comic edge, we see Dick get flattened by falling air-conditioners, gush blood thanks to absent-minded construction workers, and take a fatal tumble down the same stairs as his late wife. As the blood starts to seep from underneath the head of Dick’s crumpled body, an off-camera Kirsten asks him to move his arm up to a more cinematically pleasing position. Here, the charade becomes a kind of therapy-thru-film. By imagining and meticulously staging all the countless ways in which her dad can die, Kirsten gains some control over the uncontrollable. Everyone involved is well aware of the illusion of this control, but it’s one that both father and daughter take a good deal of playful enjoyment maintaining.
Where the film becomes mildly questionable is in Dick’s gradual detachment from his understanding of the film world he has become part of. In one scene, Dick becomes visibly worried at the sight of a fake blood bag to be concealed on his person as part of a skit. It’s a moment that reminds both Kirsten and the audience what the boundaries are within the documentary as well as Dick’s own declining memory and comprehension. To her credit, however, Kirsten chooses not to omit these slices of reality. We see her converse with her father about his increasingly dangerous disappearances, and it leads to one of the film’s most touching scenes in which, after driving through a construction site, the loss of independence brought on by his car being taken away from him brings him to tears. It’s a point in life that many will recognise, whether in Dick or Kirsten’s shoes, and it is in these relatable moments that Dick Johnson is Dead is at its most endearing.
Kirsten Johnson’s cinematic tribute to her father is a must-see for anyone who often finds death on their mind. In a film so concerned with Dick’s memory, Kirsten understands that her own memories of her father will one day be all she has. In trying to capture him on camera and cope with the idea of his eventual loss, she has made one of the most charming and movingly poignant documentaries in recent years. Dick Johnson is Dead, long live Dick Johnson.
Dick Johnson is Dead is the latest in a line of Netflix productions finding physical distribution by way of the prestigious Criterion Collection. Criterion’s Blu-ray disc should please any fans who initially watched it on the streaming platform, as it features a handful of special features to give a little more insight into Kirsten’s thought process while making her film. The best of this can be found in the audio commentary with Johnson, co-writer and editor Nels Bangerter and sound recordist Judy Karp as they discuss the logistics of making a morbid subject into something ultimately enjoyable. Also included are a few featurettes featuring Johnson and her crew in further discussion of the film, and the traditional Criterion booklet featuring a new essay by So Mayer.
Dick Johnson is Dead is available to own on Blu-ray from the 21st of February.