Tuesday, May 21, 2024
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Film review: Dick Johnson Is Dead takes an unorthodox approach to death


In this acclaimed Sundance award-winner, documentarian Kirsten Johnson stages her father’s death in a multitude of ways to help her accept the inevitable.

When a loved one is dying, how is it we come to terms with their passing? Not only must we process the passing itself, but also with the idea of their passing. For most of us, the death of a father is an unbearable idea, as it is for documentarian Kirsten Johnson. Some are fortunate enough to see it coming, but when we do, how is it that we say our last goodbyes? Johnson thinks the best way to grieve the eventual death of her father is to kill him. Over and over again.

C. Richard Johnson (or Dick to friends and family) is a former psychiatrist who is losing his memory. The family man who raised his children in the Seventh-day Adventist church is, like his late wife, suffering from dementia. “He’s such an open, accepting person,” says Kirsten. He’d have to be to let his daughter act out his accidental final moments in a plethora of ways. From being crushed by an air conditioning vent to being skewered by a lackadaisical construction worker, Dick allows his daughter to imagine the unimaginable, in turn placing himself at the foot of his own final moments, however it may occur.

Dick clearly is, as Kirsten says, an open and accepting person. His infectious nature and seemingly cheerful compliance warm the film at its very soul. From the moment the film opens through to its end, Dick is clearly a nice guy, happy to be around to people he loves. It’s this same compliance that makes the potentially grotesque scenes of his demise cathartic rather than dispiriting.

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One factor that permeates the film for both father and daughter is the loss of their wife and mother seven years previously. There are clips of Kirsten’s mother dotted through the documentary showing her muddling around the family home, clearly affected by her Alzheimer’s. There’s the sense that this footage, of her mother suffering, of painful memories, is counteracted by the heart-warming, amusing footage she has of her father. The making of Dick Johnson Is Dead is not only a way of coming to terms with her father’s fading memory and death, but also a way of soothing the anguished associated with the decline of her mother’s health.

As the director of Cameraperson and cinematographer on Citizenfour, Kirsten Johnson has established herself as a major player in the world of documentary filmmaking. In Dick Johnson Is Dead she continues to flex her muscles as a documentarian, with poetically-wise narration, candidly heart-wrenching interviews and a deeply personal exploration of what affects her life most.

Most significantly, she creates moments of genuine magic and wonder as she helps her father envisage his journey to heaven. These charmingly comical scenes captured on a sound stage portray Dick as a man overjoyed with what welcomes him after his life on earth. Be it sharing a reunion dance with his beloved wife, or having Jesus heel the deformed toes he’s been so self-conscious of all his life, Kirsten manages to capture death as a sight to behold.

Though at times joyous and tickling, it’s impossible to escape the seriousness of what Kirsten Johnson is trying to do. As we watch the family tackle a difficult subject we also have to witness for ourselves Dick’s gradual memory loss. Kirsten manages to capture him as a man we can all come to know and love, and in doing so carries us along on her difficult journey to acceptance. Dick Johnson Is Dead is a beautiful, honest, courageous and confrontational piece of filmmaking about what it means to say goodbye. We all have our own methods, but this bittersweet attempt at facing up to reality is as mighty as they come.

Dick Johnson Is Dead is available to stream worldwide on Netflix now.  Stay safe, stay home, and watch one of the best documentaries of the year. 

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Harry Jones

Long and incompetent man who is being allowed to write about films you can watch from your bed.