Dick Johnson is Dead review: New Netflix documentary depicts a powerful journey

PARK CITY, UT - JANUARY 26: Kirsten Johnson and Dick Johnson from Dick Johnson Is Dead pose for a portrait at the Pizza Hut Lounge on January 26, 2020 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Emily Assiran/Getty Images for Pizza Hut)
PARK CITY, UT - JANUARY 26: Kirsten Johnson and Dick Johnson from Dick Johnson Is Dead pose for a portrait at the Pizza Hut Lounge on January 26, 2020 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Emily Assiran/Getty Images for Pizza Hut) /
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Our review of the new Netflix Original documentary film Dick Johnson is Dead

Dick Johnson is Dead is one of the latest documentaries on Netflix with a personal touch.

Death surrounds us. Death is inevitable. Much of life involves our efforts to prolong, evade, and assist loved ones through reckoning with the certainty that we will all turn into proverbial food for worms. So what is a cameraperson to do when she senses death, hears it knocking at her father’s doorstep?

Kirsten Johnson’s answer: film it, and film it with empathy, hyperbole, and glory. She directs and co-writes the new Netflix movie, succinctly titled Dick Johnson is Dead, from a place of immense nostalgia and affection. Her tender heart and wonderfully caring relationship with her dad illuminate this portrait of loss that primarily employs reflexive documentary, which Kirsten sweetly posits “is often much more fascinating than what you can make up.”

She makes a compelling case, to the tune of the Special Jury Award for Innovation in Non-fiction Storytelling at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

Bittersweet reasons behind the documentary

Richard Johnson is, more or less, a regular guy. He’s a retired psychiatrist, enjoys the company of friends, and is seemingly very happy and content. But both he and his daughter begin to recognize the wear and tear of his old age. His memory starts to go, and Kirsten is reminded of her mother, who passed away from complications of Alzheimer’s in 2007.

While she’s accepted death in the past, the writer-director harbors some personal guilt from her lack of footage of her mom when she was of sound mind. To make up for this (and to cope with her dad’s impending death), Kirsten decides to go above and beyond during Dick Johnson’s dwindling time – she films the various sudden ways her dad could die.

Dick is absolutely game (not unsurprising—he’s quite a supportive and fun-loving dude), so the Johnsons recruit a low-budget film crew, some stunt doubles, and a special effects team before getting to work. The enactments—hilarious in their dark, cartoonish ways—are presented alongside a poignant home-video-like reflection of Dick Johnson’s final days.

Although Nels Bangeter’s editing sometimes directly contrasts extreme enactment with life sequence, Johnson dexterously blurs the line between theatricality and realism by imbuing the film with surreal flourishes and absurdist fantasies of her dad’s afterlife. The film is at its best in these moments, as you can practically see Kirsten reveling in the ability to celebrate her dad’s life even as it’s still happening.

Kirsten Johnson impresses in her loving intentions to depict and (to a fault) indulge those who mean so much to her and her dad, while also graciously allowing the audience into the magical journeys her characters take. Although she has in essence softened life’s blows through gallows humor, the power subtracted carries over to the sweet, natural moments between Kirsten and Dick, to moving results.

Kirsten’s handling of this magic boldly pushes beyond Dick Johnson’s family through the fourth wall during the movie’s finale that, although diegetically tidy, was not as fully resolute as I believe she intended. But like life itself, Dick Johnson is Dead is all about the journey, and I’d say the journey’s more than worth it when it centers around a man who, while playacting his own viciously bloody death, exclaims genuinely and loudly “I’m bleeding to death!”

Speaking as a person who has lost someone to Alzheimer’s and dementia, I think Dick Johnson is Dead effectively balances the harsh and unique truths of dealing with the symptom of memory loss, and the silver-lining morals of making the present count.

The film never coddles the audience or begs us for sympathy—rather, it ascends beyond a reminiscent perspective by always staying grounded and in the moment. Dick Johnson is Dead is a funny and touching elegy for the journey of a man and his daughter who films him. Through it, we can further grasp how our purpose on this Earth is to make life worth living.

Dick Johnson is Dead is now available to stream on Netflix.

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