Released: 2nd October
Seen: 5th October
Dick Johnson, father of filmmaker Kirsten Johnson, is on his way out. The former psychiatrist and current father is in the beginning stages of dementia and is starting to have to face the reality of his own mortality. Naturally, this leads to his daughter Kirsten coming up with an idea… she’ll film him dying in multiple gruesome ways, from falling down a set of stairs to having his neck punctured and bleeding out. It’s a fun little thing to keep Dick going, ironically by killing him over and over again.
Dick Johnson Is Dead is a beautifully bizarre ode from a daughter to her father, celebrating the man who raised her and turned her into the kind of adult who thinks filming her father’s death a few dozen times is a great use of their time together. The thing is, she’s right and throughout the film you watch as Dick slowly seeps further and further into the depths of dementia, only seemingly coming out of it to shoot these little death vignettes with his daughter. Slowly we watch as this little family copes with the massive change coming their way and how this strange creative outlet has made it easier to cope with.
Every card is played close to the chest, Kirsten is a master of slowly letting the audience in to witness something private and painful. We’re watching a man slowly lose himself, only barely spared the more heartbreaking moments by virtue of no one rolling the camera then. The scenes where they have Dick Johnson shooting some elaborate death sequence become our respite, a moment where we can counter the pain of watching someone go with the love of a family just doing something objectively silly to get through it. It’s a wild contrast that turns the film into an emotional rollercoaster.
There are times when the playfulness drops though and we’re left with the rawness of the moment, such as Dick getting a simple cognitive test and being unable to remember certain words which is a heartbreaking sequence on its own. We really get a sense of how far gone he is, and then we get either a sweet comedic moment where they’re posing him to look mangled at the bottom of the stairs or just a little bit of information about his past. It’s a delicate balancing act, alternating between the comedic deaths, the real world dementia, and the man’s history. All of them beautifully interwoven together like nothing I’ve ever seen before.
There’s a pure warmth to Dick Johnson Is Dead that, even with its heavy subject matter, can really only put you in a good mood. Every couple of minutes there’s a reason to smile or laugh, even during the emotional final scene where everything feels like it’s reached a logical conclusion there’s still a few little details that just make everything feel warm and fuzzy. It’s comforting, a simple sweet film that is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before but it’s just so warm and comforting. It’s so obviously good and sweet that I can say that in half my usual word count, which is a lot.
Dick Johnson is Dead is the kind of love letter to a father that can only be given by a true creative. Celebrating the highs and lows of a man’s life as he deals with an illness that will take him away long before he’s gone from this earth, it’s touching and sweet and funny with enough sharp moments to really get an audience thinking about this crazy little thing called life.