by Hunter Johnson
The premise of Netflix’s new film may initially make audiences wary of pressing the play button. In “Dick Johnson Is Dead,” award-winning documentarian Kirsten Johnson both tells and foretells the story of her father’s death.
Kirsten’s father, the aforementioned Dick Johnson, is a retired clinical psychiatrist who has been diagnosed with dementia. With his health deteriorating, it becomes clear to his family that he only has a few years left to live. Kirsten takes this foreknowledge and uses it to fuel her latest filmmaking venture.
For one thing, she explores the more cinematic ways that Dick could die besides his dementia, be it by a falling air conditioner, a nasty tumble down the stairs or an unfortunate construction accident. Dick embraces his daughter’s creative vision, acting out the hilariously campy death sequences with gleeful enthusiasm.
At every turn, this film walks the line between poignant drama and dark comedy. What keeps it from becoming morbid is Dick’s pure joy as he looks back on his life. Ironically, Kristen uses a film about the death of her beloved father to commemorate the remarkable life that he has lived.
Throughout this documentary, Kirsten Johnson manages to capture the essential qualities of her father in beautifully intimate ways. From beginning to end, his love for his daughter shines through. When his family is forced to sell their home, Dick talks about how strange it is to leave the place he has spent so much of his life. Without missing a beat, he then looks at his daughter and says, “I’d trade this house any day for being with you. That’s not even a consideration.”
This film not only serves as a touching glimpse into the life of Johnson’s father but also as a means of displaying her immense creativity as a filmmaker. Beyond the amusingly elaborate death scenes, the film also contains uniquely wacky depictions of heaven filled with musical numbers, slow-motion popcorn eating, and Dick’s happy reunion with all his deceased family members.
These simultaneously bizarre and lovely sequences convey how content Dick is with leaving this world behind. The Johnsons’ Seventh-Day Adventist background strongly influences the way they view the world around them, including how they view death. Rather than spending his life anxious about his future, Dick instead lives his life thankful for every moment he’s been given.
Hopefulness aside, “Dick Johnson Is Dead” is not always an easy film to watch. It is not afraid to delve into the gravity of Dick’s diagnosis, showing the toll that his dementia takes on him and his daughter. As his condition worsens, his memory begins to fade. He worries about being a burden on those caring for him and about hurting his friendships with his unavoidable forgetfulness. The most painful realization for Dick comes as he finally begins to understand what his wife went through when she died of Alzheimer’s ten years earlier.
Amid this darkness, Kirsten Johnson puts together a touching tribute to her father that shows just how humble and contented of a man he really is. At one point, he jokingly says that all he does anymore is tag along and get in her way, and she tells him that’s not true and hugs him. She then says, “Your eyes get a little teary. Are those real tears or are your eyes just that way?”
“They’re real tears, I’m sorry to admit it,” Dick replies. Then, his teary eyes widen and he clarifies, “From Joy…Love.” His genuine optimism towards life and death never ceases to amaze his daughter.
Hunter Johnson is a senior Theatre Performance Major and an A&E writer for Cedars. He spends his time gobbling up all the Star Wars that Disney pumps out, followed by daydreaming about his future dog Jojo, all while giving endless attention to his beautiful fiance.