Directed by: Kirsten Johnson
Premise: A documentary about filmmaker Kirsten Johnson and her father Richard. He is experiencing symptoms of dementia and the father and daughter contemplate his death by visualizing various scenarios in which he might meet his end.
What Works: Dick Johnson is Dead is an examination of mortality and a filmmaker’s attempt to grasp the impending death of her father. As demonstrated in the documentary, filmmaker Kirsten Johnson had already been through the death of her mother and she acknowledges that most of the footage she has of her mother was shot after dementia had taken much of her mother’s personality and mobility. Realizing that her father is headed to a similar fate, Kirsten created this film, which documents Dick Johnson’s identity. The movie succeeds in large part because of the people at its center. Dick Johnson isn’t anyone of renown but he is an affable and charming guy and that’s enough to make him a compelling subject. Although Kirsten isn’t actually on screen very much, the father-daughter relationship is vivid and the movie is colored by her love for Dick as well as her anxiety about what the future will bring. Dick Johnson is Dead is very funny. Throughout the movie, the filmmakers stage various scenarios in which Dick might die. Some are realistic and others are absurd and the movie has a playful attitude that’s underlined by black humor. The whole film is sort of an elongated prank. We know that Dick is not in good health and the filmmakers play with that, exploiting our expectations and fears. Some of the death scenes are shocking at first but the filmmakers show us how the gag was accomplished. These pranks don’t come across as cruel or cheap tricks. The movie is about facing mortality and coming to terms with the finiteness of our existence and the humor of Dick Johnson is Dead is a coping mechanism for the filmmakers and the audience. Each stunt is revealed to be a cinematic trick and the filmmakers show how each set piece was accomplished; unpacking the mechanics of the stunts becomes a metaphor of preparing for the end of life.
What Doesn’t: Dick Johnson is Dead is distinguished by its playful attitude toward death. The film works because it manages the tone and its titular subject is very likable but it’s not unreasonable that some viewers will find Dick Johnson is Dead to be in bad taste. The documentary’s irreverence is mostly an asset but the qualities that distinguish it may also limit the film’s appeal.
DVD extras: Currently available on Netflix.
Bottom Line: Dick Johnson is Dead approaches big and difficult topics with good humor and it’s a winning combination. This exploration of death is really a celebration of life that ought to leave viewers with some new perspectives about loss.
Episode: #838 (February 7, 2021)