Most people avoid discussing a parent’s declining health and approaching demise as long as possible. But rather than play that pointless and often ultimately unrewarding game, Kirsten Johnson made a borderline brilliant movie about facing mortality head-on.
Her documentary Dick Johnson Is Dead is a creative and soulful attempt to make peace with the inevitability that her octogenarian father won’t be around a whole lot longer. Spurred by reports that memory issues are tarnishing his work as a psychiatrist, Kirsten begins the process of moving Dick from his Seattle home to her one-bedroom New York City apartment — and also the cinematic project that finds both Johnsons, family and friends confronting their fears via an alluring mix of fact and fiction.
Much of the film finds Dick — a thoroughly pleasant fellow with a laugh that could bring joy to Oscar the Grouch — in front of the camera and Kirsten behind it, candidly reminiscing about happy and sad times, including milestones with his late wife and concerns surrounding his age and wellness.
While Dick Johnson Is Dead would be a very good and thought-provoking film if it stuck to these blunt and loving father-daughter discussions, it becomes something more with the introduction of fantasy sequences that imagine Dick’s passing due to various accidents.
Through the magic of stunt doubles, special effects and Kirsten’s witty filmmaking, her father is “killed” multiple times — darkly comic moments of such suddenness that they lend an air of tension to every seemingly safe thing that Dick does.
Good daughter that she is, however, Kirsten also sends Dick to heaven, where, reunited with a facsimile of his wife, he revels in colorful sequences of dancing and music, depicted in gloriously shot slow-mo that makes the most of his gleeful, expression-rich face.
Tonally in the middle among these absurd yet plausible deaths and the endless-party afterlife is perhaps the film’s most unsettling stretch: a hyperbolized re-creation of Dick being briefly left alone during a Halloween stop at one of Kirsten’s friend’s houses, which stunningly conveys his greatest phobia and feels as if it could have been lifted from a Charlie Kaufman movie.
Steadied by the presence of her magnetic leading man, Kirsten masterfully weaves all of these components together and makes a compelling argument that it’s better to work through impending pain and celebrate our loved ones’ lives together while we still can. Thanks to this dynamic duo, having those difficult conversations feels a lot more important — and loss feels a bit less scary.
Available to stream via Netflix