Dick Johnson Is Dead begins with a touching tableau. Kirsten Johnson, a documentary filmmaker, has trained her camera on her father, Dick, who is playfully chasing her children around a barn and singing silly songs. “Be careful, because the straw’s really slippery!” she says offscreen, anxiously tracking her father’s shoes sliding around the straw-covered ground. Soon enough, he slips onto his back, laughs, and shouts to his daughter, “Did you get it? Wonderful, I’ve always wanted to be in the movies,” at once confirming her worry and brushing it off with a wink.
Through this film, which debuted at Sundance and is now available on Netflix, the director is trying to confront and come to terms with death, to take control of her fears for her aging father while acknowledging how little she can do. The documentary has a loose, tragicomic structure, made up of mocking scenes in which her cheerful dad dies in lurid ways—an air conditioner falls on his head, a loose girder slices open his neck, a car hits him. Before the situation feels too realistic, the façade lifts and he springs up again, alive as ever. For a moment, Kirsten Johnson has conquered death.
That makes Dick Johnson Is Dead a strangely satisfying, yet bittersweet watch in this dark time, when fears of mortality are closer to the surface for most people. I saw several films at Sundance last January that have taken on new meaning upon their wider release in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. The endless day depicted in Palm Springs no longer felt like science fiction; the political strife of Boys State became rawer and more apocalyptic. But Dick Johnson Is Dead might have undergone the biggest transformation for me, turning from an intimate elegy to a more universal work that spoke directly to my anxieties.
The subject is still very particular—Dick Johnson is a sparkling and endearing man, a psychiatrist from Washington whose love for his daughter is as unshakable as his folksy sense of humor. A widower, he’s still clearly haunted by his wife’s death from Alzheimer’s disease years earlier. (Kirsten Johnson’s previous film, Cameraperson, included footage that wrestled with that tragedy.) More alarming, he’s showing some symptoms of absentmindedness himself, which has spurred him to move closer to his children and participate in Johnson’s bizarre cinematic experiment.
The staged death sequences toe the line of bad taste; some viewers might even think they gleefully cross it. Dick’s enthusiasm aside, each mortal scenario is punishing to watch, as if his daughter is trying to desensitize herself to an inevitability: “Just the idea that I might ever lose this man is too much to bear,” Kirsten Johnson narrates. But to her, this dread is worth tackling and even honoring, because it reaffirms the power of her relationship to her father. “It would be so easy if loving only gave us the beautiful,” she says. “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.”
There’s a hopefulness to the darkness of the film, especially one coming from a director who already lost a parent. In a world suffused with loss, Johnson is asking her audience not to ignore the grief, but to dwell on our connections to the people we love. Dick is struggling with his old age, with the loss of independence it brings, and with the thought that he might disappoint or burden his children. That he agreed to participate in his daughter’s many odd fantasias is sometimes baffling; the viewer can even sense Kirsten Johnson’s unease at points, wondering how far she can push the concept. But the end of every “death scene” brings a magical feeling of triumph, tinged with heartbreak.
Dick Johnson Is Dead ends with a funeral, though not the real one, of course. Dick lives out the particularly morbid fantasy of spying on your own memorial service and seeing what your friends and family might say about you after you’re gone. That sequence struck me harder than any other in the film—more so than the most elaborate staged deaths, or Johnson’s candy- and glitter-strewn depictions of heaven, where she imagines her father and mother dancing together again. Watching Dick look on with awe at the emotional speeches, I was hit with the simple realization—we don’t say these things enough to one another while we’re alive. For all its eerie focus on the end of our lives, that’s what Johnson’s movie is about: celebrating the people we love.