“Real life is often much more fascinating than what you can make up.”
In Dick Johnson Is Dead, the brilliant new documentary from renowned filmmaker Kirsten Johnson, there’s a clear agreement with Oscar Wilde’s famous quote, “life imitates art far more often than art imitates life.” She’s made a movie about life and its often harsh realities, but it’s framed and told through the lens of fiction, all as a means of making the inevitable enjoyable and at times even enlightening and inviting. It’s a creative, universally poignant, deeply personal endeavor, and the first great film I’ve seen in 2020. I cannot recommend it strongly enough. And I must suggest you keep tissues nearby to mop up the tears from the many laughs and the staggering emotional wallops. What an ode to what it means to be human, to love, to exist.
The design of this doc seems simple: Dick Johnson, an impossibly upbeat elderly man and the father of Kirsten, is slowly losing his mind to dementia. That he’s a retired clinical psychologist only adds another ironic onion layer to this tearful celebration. Kirsten says, “I suggested we make a movie about him dying. He said yes.” A window AC unit comes crashing from above, a tumble down the stairs, a heart attack, buried in sand, falling on the sidewalk. These are ways in which Dick Johnson “dies,” all while camera crews record and stuntmen stand in when necessary. Dick plays along because he gets to spend time with his beloved daughter. Kirsten keeps shooting as a means of dealing with the uncertainty of what’s certain to come. And as much as it is a testament to the human spirit, the film is all the more impactful because its love letter has been co-authored between parent and child. Its dueling, dual signature is indelibly forged.
Hilariously enough, Kirsten Johnson’s speculative approach to her father’s eventual death reminded me of an old SNL sketch, in which Dana Carvey plays Tom Brokaw as he pre-records increasingly illogical ways President Gerald Ford might somehow die. That iconic bit is built on absurdist humor, whereas Dick Johnson Is Dead grounds itself in the intricacies of the compelling individual at its center. He has plenty of embarrassing dad jokes. He’s protective and caring. He tries his best to not be a burden even as he wrestles with the reckoning of his own physical, psychological decay. He’s almost always there though, the wheels still spinning, his eyes focused and rarely vacant as he plays along with his daughter. The more we get to know about this man and about this family, the harder it is to not fall in love. Their bonds radiate honesty and empathy.
Dick Johnson Is Dead gives us proof that Kirsten Johnson is not merely a fine documentarian; she’s a masterful filmmaker, and one who continues to push the boundaries of her medium. I’ve never seen a documentary quite like this one, which can be attributed to her willingness to expand outside the usual subjective shooting approach. Here we get dreamy visuals of heaven, accidents edited better than most modern action films, and a unique narrative which thankfully ends on a positive note. Dick Johnson Is Dead captures the sadness of personal decline, the traded roles between parents and children when the end comes near, and how to persist with grace and with joy. They don’t get much better than this.
“It’s just inevitable, and a part of who we all are.”
Rating: 5 out of 5