It may not sound like it but “Dick Johnson is Dead” may be one of the most unique love letters ever put on screen. This unusual documentary mixes together a near morbid playfulness with genuine heartbreak. Through its off-beat process the film becomes an uncomfortably funny and strangely cathartic mediation on mortality. And it’s examined through an intensely personal lens – that of a daughter chronicling the decline of her ailing elderly father.
Documentarian Kristen Johnson puts the camera on her father Richard Johnson, a happy, gentle, and well-respected clinical psychiatrist. When we first meet him “a few years ago” Richard is still seeing patients in his Seattle office. He’s still driving to work and living by himself in the family home. So why is his filmmaker daughter from New York making a movie of his life? Because her father has been diagnosed early stage dementia. “He’s a psychiatrist. I’m a camera person. I suggested we make a movie about him dying. He said yes.”
Lest you think this is a simple personal video journal, the movie quickly differentiates itself in the strangest of ways. It’s encapsulated in one particular scene. Richard is walking along a downtown Seattle sidewalk carrying an Amazon package. Suddenly a window air conditioning unit falls down striking him in the head. And just like that “Dick Johnson is Dead”. Or is he? Well no. Actually it’s one of several staged accidental deaths that Richard happily participates in. Anything for his daughter.
You might (understandably) ask why the younger Johnson would want to film this subject in such a provocative way and why the elder Johnson would go along with it. We get a good idea in a brief moment where Kristen talks about her mother who also died of Alzheimer’s. Kristen laments that the only video memories she has is footage taken well after the disease had taken her mother’s mind. This film allows Kristen to document and conserve the memories of her father, his playfulness and his lovingkindness. For Richard it provides ample bonding time with his daughter, full of laughter and fun as both brace for the inevitable.
It may sound cold but it’s actually far from it. Yes, we do get some jet-black humor such as Richard praising the comfort of his soon-to-be coffin in his church’s sanctuary. But the humor ultimately takes a backseat to the humanity of it all. For all of the elaborate (and sometimes graphic) renditions of death or surreal stage sets of heaven, we get far more poignant moments of deep emotional truth. It may be a quiet moment in a clothes closet where Kristen shares some personal feelings or Richard expressing concern over the burden he is on his daughter.
A key to the movie’s success is its ability to make us feel like we truly know Mr. Johnson. We can’t help but be charmed by his kind spirit and jovial demeanor. We learn of his love for chocolate, Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein”, and his favorite black leather chair. All of this captures our emotions which become inseparably linked to his situation. So it’s painful to watch this lively lover of life begin showing real-life signs of decline – forgetfulness, uncertainty, and at times fear.
But Kristen Johnson doesn’t allow her film to wallow in dread or sorrow. Instead she showers it in a cascade of unfettered love. There is an unshakable warmth in the daddy/daughter relationship at the movie’s core but also in the way she shoots it as a filmmaker. As she tells her father when asked why she makes documentaries, “Real life is often more fascinating than what you can make up.” She brings that conviction to every scene, every closeup, and every conversation.
“Dick Johnson is Dead” takes an honest look at the inevitability of death, coping with loss, and making the most of the time we have with those we love. It does so with a wacky yet infectious sense of humor and moving clear-eyed observations rooted in intimate human attachment. It takes some time to get in a rhythm, but once it does you’ll find yourself laughing and holding off tears. You also can’t help but admire both the audacity of Kristen Johnson the filmmaker and the loving admiration of Kristen Johnson the daughter. “Dick Johnson is Dead” premieres October 2nd on Netflix.
VERDICT – 4 STARS