Dick Johnson Is Dead is now streaming on Netflix
We have all lost people we love, whether it be a parent or sibling, a grandparent or best friend. This is the very nature of living and holding onto relationships that matter to us.
From filmmaker Kirsten Johnson, Dick Johnson Is Dead tackles the inevitability of death and it explores the process of actively losing somebody as they age physically and their mind declines. It is a tragic comedy that is equal parts sad and hilarious as it rejects the traditional constraints of a documentary feature by infusing scripted bits and showy musical numbers.
The subject of the film is Dr. Richard “Dick” Johnson, Kirsten Johnson’s father, and is is a testament to the final stages of his life and how the Johnson family grapples with these fears and uncertainties. Dick is aware of what is happening as he retires from his practice as a psychiatrist and moves across the country to be with his daughter, and in an environment where he can be looked after as he deals with memory loss and the worsening of his dementia.
Early on in the film, Kirsten recounts the phone calls she was getting, the stories of what her father was doing, and the dangerous situations he was finding himself in because of the memory loss. Before his move, there is a tender scene in which Dick is informed that he won’t be driving anymore and won’t be getting his car back, which he takes very hard as it means a loss of his independence.
To make a tragic situation easier to understand and come to terms with, Kirsten pitches the idea of this film to her father,
“Dad, what if we make a movie where we kill you over and over again until you really die? And he laughed.”Kirsten Johnson, Vulture
And this is exactly what happens. Scene after scene throughout the film, we see different, clever, and even fist clenching ways in which Dick Johnson dies. But he is along for the ride and having a great time, from the silly to the violent, as he tries out something new in this final chapter of life.
Through all of this, though, we never forget that Dick Johnson really is dying. It’s only a matter of time. As his dementia progresses, we see moments of forgetfulness and confusion. There are moments, too, when there are scares over Dick’s physical health and even a moment or two where the audience is forced to think, did he actually die?
This film is also an exploration of faith and spirituality, as it relates to the subject and the filmmaker, but also in a broader sense for the audience as they explore the topic of death and dying.
Included, too, is home video of Kirsten Johnson’s mother, who dealt with her own memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease before passing away in 2007. The family’s experience with this is often compared to Dick Johnson’s situation.
There is no mistaking that Dick Johnson Is Dead is full of love and care. Death is a delicate topic and one that is all too often avoided in discussion, even though it is one of the most present realities of life. This movie doesn’t shy away from the difficult conversation and, if anything, it invites people to be more honest and open about it, especially with loved ones who may be in a similar situation as Dick.