The central conceit of Kirsten Johnson’s fantasy/documentary hybrid film Dick Johnson is Dead sounds almost too morbid & emotionally traumatizing to stomach for its full 90 minutes. Somehow, though, the execution leaves the film feeling surprisingly lighthearted and, against all odds, cute. The titular Dick Johnson is Kirsten’s father, who is grappling with losing his mind & body to old age & senility. To help prepare for this impending familial loss, the retired psychiatrist agreed to collaborate with his documentarian daughter on a film about his death. Johnson is depicted lying in his coffin, lounging on his favorite chair in Heaven and, most frequently, dying on camera in various mundane accidents that could reasonably kill a man of his fragile age. It’s an exercise that’s clearly meant to function as cinematic therapy for one specific family, but in practice it works as broad, universally relatable gallows humor. We’re all going to die (some of us sooner than we’d like), so we might as well get used to the idea and learn to have a laugh over that inevitable fate.
If there’s anything that’s especially tough to endure as an audience here, it’s in Kirsten Johnson’s lingering loss of her mother, who died nearly a decade ago after suffering a more extreme version of memory loss than her still-living husband. Johnson’s haunted by the irreversible fact that she did not take the time to document & collaborate with her mother while she was still in her prime, a mistake she’s determined not to repeat with her father. By making a film with her father about his own impending death, she’s not only getting comfortable with the reality of that tragedy, but she’s also making sure to spend time with him while she can. Dick Johnson is Dead is gradually less about envisioning its subject dead in a coffin or on an NYC sidewalk and more about documenting his gregarious personality, his most guarded vulnerabilities, and his personal fantasies of an ideal world. Dick Johnson hams up the various performances of his death with broad comedic humor because, at heart, the project is mostly about having fun & spending time with his filmmaker daughter while he can.
Dick Johnson’s escalating senility does limit how far the film’s central conceit can be pushed, both because it would be cruel to make him work long hours on movie sets and because he eventually forgets the fantasy aspect of the project, confusing stage blood for the real thing. Kirsten Johnson isn’t entirely interested in maintaining the structure of that staged-deaths conceit anyway. Much of the film shows her deliberately stripping back the artifice of both the staged-death vignettes and the more traditional documentarian techniques at play. Stunt doubles, boom mic operators, gore makeup technicians, and everyone else involved in the project are allowed to wander into the frame as if this were a home movie of a company picnic rather than a high-concept art project. As a result, the biggest emotional impacts come from intimate moments like Johnson responding “I didn’t know that” to her father’s various anecdotes or from their tough conversations about what freedoms he has to give up as he ages, like the ability to drive. If anything, the staged death scenes are the film’s comic relief, and it’s the quiet moments of idle time in-between where the severity of the situation hits the family (and the audience) hardest.