‘Dick Johnson is Dead’ is a Hilarious and Touching Examination of Death and What it Means to be Alive

A still from documentary 'Dick Johnson is Dead'. Richard Johnson, an elderly man is centre frame shown in close-up. He is wearing a florary garland rond his neck and is leaning against a furry cushion, confetti is falling around him and his mouth is wide open in awe.

There was much excitement surrounding Dick Johnson is Dead after Kirsten Johnson’s incredible documentary, Cameraperson. Johnson’s newest and extremely personal documentary revolves around her father, Richard Johnson, who suffers from dementia and is nearing the end of his life, something that the two of them are figuring out how to handle. Death is an inevitable fact of life, yet it is one of the hardest ideas that we must all grapple with, and Johnson copes with the reality of her father passing away by staging his death in various comical scenarios throughout the documentary, as well as creating what his idea of heaven would look like. 

Dick Johnson is Dead begins with a clip of Johnson filming her father playing with her children, pushing them on a swing, despite Johnson’s warning that the straw on the ground beneath them is slippery. An infectious laugh comes from Dick after he accidentally slips and falls onto his back, not heeding her warning. This is one of many small moments captured on camera that show how close Johnson and her father are, how their family feels complete with his presence there, communicating to us that these are the types of moments that she will miss when he’s no longer around. It’s these moments with your older loved ones that begin to be shaped by the knowledge that their time is limited, that force people to sit back and think to themselves about what these moments would look like without that person; what life would look like without that person. Johnson shows that these moments hurt, in a way, because they aren’t forever. In a voiceover, Johnson says that, “just the idea that I might ever lose this man is too much to bear.”

This film shows both Johnson and her father’s equal unacceptance of what’s to come with his worsening dementia — his “disappearance”, as she calls it. Not only do we hear from her perspective of what it’s like to feel her father slipping away, but also witness the frustration that Dick is going through while losing himself and his autonomy. What’s so beautiful about this film is that it is a way for them to both grapple with what’s happening, while getting to spend time with one another, and to rejoice and to live together in each moment, rather than spend the rest of his life mourning the unavoidable before it’s even happened yet. Dick Johnson is Dead shows us that there are times for sadness and that dealing with death is a process that you must go through, but there must be time for simply living too.

The staged death scenes are jarring in all the right ways, and allow the viewer relief by being able to let out a laugh in the face of death, one that may seem inappropriate while dealing with such a subject. There’s even a scene where Dick is lying in a coffin pretending to be dead, and just the visual of him in that position is enough to make one of Dick’s friends emotional, having to remind himself that this is just a movie. But when Dick is lifted out of the coffin, he jokes to those present, “a resurrection!” It’s another difficult moment injected with a bit of lightheartedness to break the tension. Johnson and her father’s ability to keep up their sense of humour is what gets them through, and it gets us as viewers through too, and sometimes that’s all any of us have left. 

Most artists cope with their pain through creating, and Johnson, along with her father, Dick, have created a beautiful piece of art together with Dick Johnson is Dead, an ode to life and his eventual death. In a way, we prepare for death all our lives, but no one is ever really prepared to die or to face the death of someone close to them. When you love someone who is getting older, death seems to colour every moment you spend with them. “Will this be the last time I see them?” you begin to think to yourself, and every moment spent becomes all the more special because of death. But this documentary teaches us that every moment should be special regardless of death and that death is not necessarily something to fear, but something that can be celebrated, while still allowing room for people to feel loss. This is a brilliant and inventive documentary featuring a fantastical display of stunning imagery that shows a celebration of life, as well as moments of true, raw despair of the unknown that will leave viewers feeling bittersweet.

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

by Alysha Prasad

Alysha Prasad (she/her) is a freelance writer who is currently pursuing her Master’s Degree in Film and Television at DePaul University in Chicago. Her favourite films include: Call Me By Your Name, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Before Sunset. You can find her on Twitter at @leeshprasad.

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