REEL Review – Dick Johnson Is Dead (2020)

Director: Kirsten Johnson | 1h 29mins | Documentary

Dick Johnson’s daughter decides to film him dying in different ways, all in a bid to prepare him, and herself, for when his Dementia takes over.

Kirsten Johnson’s personal documentary about her Father is an intriguing way of dealing with future suffering. Often, when a member of our family succumbs to such a debilitating disease we begin to ponder on those moments before they lost themselves, wishing we could have savoured them. Luckily for Johnson, she has the capability to savour the very best out of her loving Father while also allowing him to experience ending it on his own terms.

Johnson places her Father in surreal situations, shooting his death as if it’s an action movie, followed by ultra slow-mo visions of his very own personal heaven. This couldn’t of worked if it wasn’t for Dick Johnson himself, a smiley man with such a family-orientated happiness, he agrees to this out of love for his daughter. But what’s so intriguing is how deep they go with it, even allowing Dick to view is own funeral, with real people.

A constant conversation Kirsten is having through her tender narration is that of her Mother, a woman who suffered the a similar fate 13 years earlier. She shows us minimal footage of her Mother, and tells us that this is all they have of her. It seems as though this is why Kirsten wanted to make the film, and part of the reason there is so much passion coursing through it, as an opportunity to savour the man who has done everything for her over the years. It’s not a luxury everyone has, but Kirsten allowing us to watch such a film makes it all the more affective as it toys on your own connection to family.

..it’s made all the more endearing because of the relationship between Father and Daughter – and how Dick allows himself to be a part of his Daughter’s world so closely.

All of the way in which she depicts her Dad dying – an air conditioning unit dropping on his head to a dramatic blood-filled stabbing – are pretty tasteless. They aren’t entertaining for us, they’re a bleak vision that are made even more difficult by the real people in them. But, it doesn’t matter. This is their therapy and their humour. A therapeutic collage of facing death head on, and meeting it on your own terms, and it’s made all the more endearing because of the relationship between Father and Daughter – and how Dick allows himself to be a part of his Daughter’s world so closely.

The last scene is a tricky one – but spectacular in it’s own way – playing out Dick’s funeral as if it were real. He’s in the coffin, his friends and family are all gathered to say a few things about him and even his best friend delivers a eulogy. But, before emotions set in we realise that it’s a planned event in order to let Dick witness his own funeral – something no one on earth has the ability to do. It’s the pinnacle of the movie’s madness and heartbreaking truth colliding, using a balance of filmic wonder and psychological confrontation that could have easily toppled at any second, but the connection between the two central figures of this doc keep the unique frame from shattering around them.

It’s not an easy watch, not because of the dreary undertones of a brutal future lying ahead, or the dark humour – it’s because the film so easily tugs at our own connections. The film is such a one-off experience and that’s thanks to a filmmaker who pours her heart and sole into it, creating a film that is personal in it’s story but beautifully unique in the way it faces morality head on.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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