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DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD (2020) review

October 2, 2020


written by: Kirsten Johnson and Nels Bangerter
produced by: Katy Chevigny
directed by: Kirsten Johnson
runtime: 89 min.
U.S. release date: October 2, 2020 (Netflix)


Writer/director Kirsten Johnson loves her father and that’s why she is killing him over and over again in her new documentary “Dick Johnson is Dead”. Relax. It’s all in fun, plus her father is in on it. In a touching tribute to and creative celebration of her father, a good-natured and jovial octogenarian who’s dementia diagnosis is deteriorating him to an inevitable end, what Johnson creates is a sweet and poignant love letter and in doing so creates a space for the filmmaker to release her own anxiety about losing someone she loves dearly.

As the film opens, we see Dick playing with his grandchildren in a barn, while Kirsten films him, cautioning him to watch the slippery straw on the ground. Of course, because of that warning, he does indeed fall flat on his back. He’s a little winded, yet laughs it off, as the camera lingers on the frail man, capturing him inching his way to a prone position and in doing so captures one of the many vulnerable moments of the film.

The more we hang out with Kirsten’s father and learn about him, the easier it is to love him and see why she is so endeared to him. Their sense of humor is certainly aligned, that’s for sure. How else can you explain a father who goes along willingly with a daughter who wants to film him in a series of imaginative fatal mishaps? Indeed he is game as he suggests he be euthanized and in another scene adds, “I’ve always wanted to be in the movies!”




These enacted deaths are painted with black humor and mostly happen in ordinary settings where one step can end badly. Dick walks down an urban sidewalk and suddenly a falling air conditioner lands on the poor guy, leaving him in a pool of blood. Dick takes another walk down the street and trips and falls and lies motionless. Dick walks down a street and takes a hit to the neck by an object that’s accidentally swung his way, causing blood to spurt as he stumbles away. Dick takes a tumble down his home stairs and winds up twisted at the bottom, once again leaving a blood trail. However, as soon as these quick scenes are over, Kirsten pulls back the camera and we see her crew check on her father’s stunt double or we see the make-up artists talk to Dick in a trailer, prepping him on how the blood spurting will look real.

The audience is in on it all, as Kirsten ensures us that no harm will befall her father and at the same time we’re let in on her process. In another sequence, we see her auditioning stuntmen, determining who would best imitate her father’s distinctive walk. With some crafty camerawork and quick editing the end result can look all too real. In many ways, it feels like Kirsten is homaging the actors of the silent era. In fact, tile cards are used during an amusing Halloween scene, confirming that Kirsten’s brand of humor wants to include cinema history as she makes her own movie magic.



“Dick Johnson is Dead” isn’t just concerned with finding different ways to kill off the titular subject. It finds importance in revealing who Dick is in the present and what his past was like. He had a long career in Seattle working as a clinical psychiatrist and part of the film shows Kirsten helping him box up his office as he relocates to New York City to live with his daughter. It’s a hard change for Dick, especially when he realizes that he won’t be allowed to drive anymore, which finds him getting emotional about his fading independence as the situation reminds him of when Kirsten’s mother was transferred from their home to a nursing home due to her increasing Alzheimer’s disease.

Kirsten includes footage of her mother close to the last days of her life, stating that she doesn’t have any video of her mother prior to the disease ravaged her. This provides motivation and insight as to why she’s committed to capturing her father on film. Such preservation draws them closer, their candid conversations often end with her camera on the ground as we hear them laugh or cry. Not only do we see Dick Johnson in vulnerable moments, Kirsten follows suit as we hear her voice guide us through the film and see her in front of the camera, sometimes in a closet recording narration into her iPhone. We are witnessing an artist partaking in her own intimate and entertaining form of catharsis.



The film is definitely not a downer. It’s focusing on life just as much, if not more, than it does death. Johnson isn’t just putting her father through the ringer, she’s also including him in fantasy sequences in which he visits heaven and is healed by Jesus. There are scenes where she takes him to Loma Linda, California, to visit his childhood sweetheart and then there’s footage of him goofing around with his grandchildren on a Lisbon beach.

Johnson’s last documentary came out in 2016, the wondrous collage “Cameraperson” an award-winning global tour capturing how she sees the world. That definitely had her distinctive personal touch, but this is perhaps even more personal (how could it not?), presenting her personality more clearly as she captures someone who is her world.

While it has its laughs and thoroughly imaginative moments, the tender moments between father and daughter that make “Dick Johnson is Dead” such a personal and touching film. There also happens to be quite a bit here to mine here in terms of how we live life, how we view death, and what we do to grieve. Indeed, both Johnsons provide us with some powerful lessons, primarily not to take life for granted, but to fully embrace it and love fully, with laughter and tears. It’s a one of a kind viewing experience, providing robust laughs and well-earned tears, in a time when we certainly need both.

“Dick Johnson is Dead” premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, where it won the Special Jury Award for Innovation in Non-fiction Storytelling. It was picked up by Netflix where thankfully a wider audience will be to appreciate and enjoy this ode to life.


RATING: ****

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