Growing up in an Irish-Catholic family, we never really talked about death. Getting older and moving away, I realized that my family continues to grow, age, and die even when I’m not around. Each time I return home, the grandparents who raised me have sprouted a few more gray hairs, lost a few more teeth, become a little more worn around the eyes, and, inevitably, gotten a little bit older. Kirsten Johnson’s Dick Johnson is Dead is her own quirky way of coming to terms with the pressing mortality of her loved ones.
Dick Johnson is Dead is a nonfiction documentary-style film depicting the loving relationship between dementia-ridden C. Richard Johnson and his daughter, director Kirsten Johnson.
As the film progresses, the viewer learns of Dick’s loving and joy-filled life centered around family, religion, and laughter. There are few moments we see Dick without a smile, either through expression, his eyes, or his infectious laughter. We learn of the deep and loving relationship between him and his daughter, as well as the immense pain that came with the loss of his wife years before.
After losing her mother to ailments similar to those that her father faced now, Kirsten Johnson wanted to grapple with his mental demise by confronting that loss before it even happened. In the film, Kirsten does this by staging her father’s death in increasingly ridiculous ways. But, as time continues, her father’s mental coherency fades and, from her father’s eyes, the line between a fake death and his real one becomes increasingly blurred.
In Kirsten’s words, “It would be so easy if loving only gave us the beautiful. But what loving demands is that we face the fear of losing each other. That when it gets messy we hold each other close. And when we can, we defiantly celebrate our brief moments of joy.”
Dick Johnson is Dead is all about love and loss, and especially what happens when those two things inevitably collide. Regardless of age, history, health, or anything else, we are all going to face death – either our own or, more likely, the deaths of those we hold dear. And in an extremely tumultuous time (cheers, coronavirus) when it seems as though people will never stop dying, Dick Johnson Is Dead is the perfect amalgamation of the human experience through loss, grief, and trying to find joy in the places that seem impressively bleak.
Dick Johnson Is Dead is amazingly funny; Kirsten Johnson takes the unbelievably painful experience of losing a loved one to dementia and turns it into a story that you can laugh at. You aren’t laughing at the loss that is felt by the people who love Dick, and you aren’t laughing at his worsening memory or the tears exchanged between a father and daughter; you’re laughing at the absurd image of an 85-year-old man pretending to get hit by a wayward a/c unit.
By absurdifying her father’s death, Johnson makes the extremely real and painful way that she will lose her father a little bit easier to manage. It’s the perfect depiction of optimism in the face of utter heartbreak. While it’s painful to watch her father fade away, through her own (slightly questionable) coping mechanism, Kirsten makes her reality a little more digestible and easier to face.
Dick Johnson is Dead needs to be at the top of your Netflix watchlist. It will make you laugh, cry, and everything in between.