Dick Johnson is Dead Review: An original cinematic experience
The human moments juxtaposed with the dark humour of Dick’s deaths make at once for quality cinema and a winning documentary
"Why did you become a documentarian? Why not just make fiction films, where the big bucks are?” asks Richard Dick Johnson of his daughter Kirsten Johnson, the director of this unique film. Kirsten, a documentary filmmaker for 30 years, says, “Real life is often much more fascinating than what you can make up.” When the end credits of Dick Johnson Is Dead roll, it’s impossible not to agree.
Director: Kirsten Johnson
Cast: Kirsten Johnson, Richard Dick Johnson
Streaming on: Netflix
When her octogenarian father is diagnosed with dementia, Kirsten realises that history is repeating itself. Barely seven years ago, Kirsten’s mother had died after falling down the stairs. But Dick says he lost his wife even before the horrific incident… to Alzheimer's. Kirsten sees that Dick is headed in the same direction. To come to terms with the impending death of her dad, Kirsten comes up with an eccentric solution. She suggests to her father that they enact different ways of his death and film them!
So, we get to see a series of Dick’s deaths. He dies falling down the stairs like his dead wife, he dies when an air-conditioner falls on his head... you get the idea. However, the film is more than these frivolous enactments. Kirsten turns the camera towards the affected, like Dick’s high-school crush, and captures their perspectives of death. These human moments juxtaposed with the dark humour of Dick’s deaths make at once for quality cinema and a winning documentary.
Added to this is the charm of Dick Johnson and his contagious laugh. The dying man is both practical and emotional at the same time. There are moments of overwhelming emotion, like when he breaks down learning that he is not allowed to drive anymore. The car, to Dick, is more than a means of transportation; it's his freedom. In another instance, he remains candid about the idea of euthanasia. He says his daughter has his permission to euthanise him. When she asks him about the right time to do it, he laughs: “Pass it by me before you do it.”
As the film comes to a close, we witness the deterioration of Dick’s memory. He misses their house and walks past it. He admits that he is not able to make new memories. He begins to lose his personality, the idea of ‘I’, which differentiates one human from another. And yet, this film doesn’t end on a mawkish, depressing note. Instead, it inspires hope in the face of inevitable death. This is a winning, inspiring documentary on what it means to face one’s mortality.