There have been many fictional and documentary films made about patients with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, but you can count on one hand the number of them that make you laugh. To that tiny list you can now add Dick Johnson is Dead, a documentary that is a loving ode by a filmmaker to her ailing dad.
Dick Johnson is a psychiatrist in Seattle who’s retiring due to increasing memory issues. His daughter, cinematographer/director Kirsten Johnson, has come to move him to New York to live with her so he can have better care. However, being the creative type, Kirsten refuses to just watch her dad deteriorate.
Instead, she comes up with a series of macabre-but-funny situations showing Dick dying that she will film for posterity. Dick, being the affable and agreeable type, goes along with the ideas, which often include stunt men standing in for him as he, among other things, gets hit by falling air conditioner, trips down the stairs, or has his jugular punctured by a clumsy construction worker.
The scenes are all in good fun and are clearly a way for Dick and Kirsten to connect in his waning years. Kirsten also comes up with some truly beautiful tableaus, including a wake for Dick while he’s still alive featuring his family and friends, and a fanciful sequence with dancers wearing oversized faces of Dick and his late wife, Katie Jo.
All the while, we’re treated to the obviously loving relationship that Dick and Kirsten have. While Kirsten doesn’t shy away from the reality of what Dick is going through, neither does she wallow in the sadness of it. The various death scenes and the film as a whole are meant to be a celebration of the kind of man Dick is, and that purpose comes through in every frame.
The film is not polished in the slightest, as Kirsten keeps in moments where the camera is out of focus or even pointed at odd angles. But the whole point is for the audience to see and hear the truth of Dick’s condition and their relationship, and those honest moments are what make the film what it is.
Every good parent deserves to be celebrated the way that Kirsten honors her dad in Dick Johnson is Dead. His condition may be sad, but the film gives many more opportunities to smile and appreciate him than it does making you cry.
Dick Johnson is Dead began streaming exclusively on Netflix starting October 2.