Director Kirsten Johnson loves her father so much, she needs to keep killing him. If that sounds like a strange premise for a documentary that will almost certainly make you cry, well, strap in. Dick Johnson is Dead happens to be an emotional powerhouse, but there’s tremendous amounts of humor, as well. The doc, coming to Netflix this weekend, is a one-of-a-kind beast, and that’s what makes it so special. Both deeply personal and somehow incredibly universal, this is one of the best documentaries of the year so far, deserving of major Academy Award consideration. It’s truly a gem, in ways that really need to be seen in order to be understood.
Dick Johnson is Dead somehow balances the heart, humor, pathos, and tragedy in equal measure. Johnson walks a tightrope that few would be able to pull off. She’s raging against the dying of the light for her father, throwing up a middle finger to mortality. It’s nearly impossible not to rage with her, so impeccably done is this deeply personal work.
On a personal note for yours truly, this will resonate for anyone who had a close relationship to an older gentleman at the end of his life. My grandfather, who passed away a few years ago, was my best friend, and like Johnson, exposed me to Young Frankenstein at an early age. Watching how close she is with her patriarch brought back a lot of memories, and clearly, this is intentional.
Johnson doesn’t just celebrate her father, she mourns her mother as well. It may sound obvious, but it really makes a difference here. As she films her father, she actually shows a video she has of her mother, just about the only one she has, and it’s of her mom towards the end of her life. Robbed of her vibrant personality by Alzheimers, the dementia clearly takes a toll on the entire family. That end to her life looms large for both Johnsons, in ways both spoken and unspoken.
The documentary has Johnson showcasing her father, Dick Johnson. They’ve decided that, in order to prepare him for the end of his life (and for her to cope as well), she’s going to simulate his death in all sorts of ways. Kirsten has planned a number of staged accidents for him, one more ridiculous than the next. In that way, he won’t be a victim of his failing health, which is affecting his mind in a similar way to the dementia that robbed them of the family matriarch. Instead, he’ll be a victim of happenstance. To the Johnsons, this is a far more acceptable outcome than the inevitable.
The more she kills her dad, the more we learn about him. He was a well-regarded psychiatrist, in addition to being a beloved father, grandfather, and husband. Dick Johnson amused people wherever he went, so the specter of his diminished mental acuities, as well as his ultimate passing, looms as a loss that Kirsten Johnson must consistently contend with and ponder, all while filming an ambitious documentary.
As sad as this all sounds, it’s also very funny, as well. Johnson and her co-writer/editor Nels Bangerter structures things quite well, never letting you dwell on any one aspect. When you might get depressed, something rather amusing happens. When things are a little too light, Dick Johnson is Dead reminds you of the tragedy eventually befalling this family. It’s not an easy tightrope to walk, but Johnson and Bangerter do it incredibly well.
Kirsten Johnson has a number of affecting voice-over bits in the documentary, but one that sticks with you is how we have to defiantly celebrate our brief moments of joy in this life. Her voice is resolute and professional, but there are cracks in the armor, whether it’s talking about her mother, or trying to say a specific sentence about her father. Those moments elevate the flick, showing how this isn’t some stunt or gimmick, but truly an artist coping with an eventual life without her parents.
Watching the Johnsons, you manage to see a very unique yet very relatable love. That will serve the move well during awards season, where it could easily be a prime contender for the Oscar in Best Documentary Feature. Netflix has several of those big contenders in the category, so it remains to be seen how they position them, but this is a top tier 2020 doc, without question.
Dick Johnson is Dead will wreck a lot of you, especially if you’ve lost someone special. If not, it will likely make you cherish your loved ones even more. Regardless, it’s impossible not to be smitten by what Johnson has done here, how she honors her father. We should all be so lucky as to have someone do that for us.