Dick Johnson is Dead Review

Kirsten Johnson’s film Dick Johnson is Dead isn’t dissimilar from Mucho Mucho Amor, which premiered at the True/False film festival just the night before Johnon’s film had its T/F opening, in the same exact venue. Where Mucho Mucho Amor is a more unexpected tale of closure at the end of a life, however, Dick Johnson is Dead is about preparing for a very expected end–the eventual death of Johnson’s father, the eponymous Dick Johnson, from Alzheimer’s Disease.

Kirsten Johnson (who also directed the masterful Cameraperson) and her father conspire on an artistic experiment meant to take some of the sting out of Dick’s expected passing. Johnson creates a series of short scenes in which Dick is killed, shockingly and accidentally. He falls down a set of stairs. He’s crushed by an air conditioner, and killed in a car accident. Johnson even buys him a small coffin to test out which, hilariously, cost exactly $666. She also films a few scenes that are her approximation of heaven, in which Dick is reunited with his wife, Johnson’s mother, and enjoys copious amounts of chocolate cake.

At the same time, Johnson is having to deal with the very real situation of her father’s decline. In between these stagings, Dick retires from his psychiatry practice. He leaves his long-time home in Seattle and moves into his daughter’s apartment in New York. He starts the film bright and funny and charming, and while his mischievous spirit prevails, by the end it’s faded significantly by his deteriorating faculties.

Dick Johnson is Dead is both a poetic act of defiance and a portrait of love at the end of a life. Johnson’s mother also suffered from Alzheimer’s, and Johnson’s memory of that time in her mother’s life, as well as Dick’s recollection of it, haunts them both. In a way, Johnson’s mom already laid out the roadmap for what’s to come. Johnson knows the end of Dick’s life will be messy and unpleasant, that against her intentions, she may come to resent his increasingly-dependent presence in her life. Dick also knows from experience that he’s slowly going to lose his identity to the disease. Together, they know the only thing to do is to make the most of the limited time left.

The movie straddles a cheeky line between humor and grief. Johnson and her father seem to share a love of transgressive jokes, and an innate interest in humanity that give Dick Johnson is Dead a bittersweet, ultimately celebratory air. Dick gamely participates and watches his stunt doubles “die” in his place (at one point delightedly proclaiming “that’s me!” when a stuntman dressed as him trips over a crack in the sidewalk and pretends to break his neck). In the afterlife scenes, he grins with delight as he dances with a cardboard cutout of his late wife, as cutouts of Buster Keaton, Bruce Lee and other dead celebrities look on.

Dick’s faith plays a significant role in these imaginings, as does Johnson’s philosophical approach to her father’s impending passing. Johnson’s family are Seventh Day Adventists, and the church believes all the righteous who die will eventually be raised from the dead and taken to Heaven after the return of Jesus Christ. There is joy in that theological approach, but also a profound sense of loneliness, both of which Johnson explores. Mostly, however, she focuses on the renewal aspects. One particularly touching moment has an actor playing Jesus blessing Dick’s club feet (they’ve been deformed since his birth), and giving him the “feet with toes” that were Dick’s lifelong wish.

Dick Johnson is Dead ends with a bit of a bait-and-switch, an event playing with truth and fiction that essentially allows Dick the same kind of closure and validation Walter Mercado experiences in Mucho Mucho Amor. It is, perhaps, the movie’s ultimate act of love. Johnson’s film reminds us, more than anything, that love involves self-sacrifice and a willingness to get messy. Most importantly, however, love is about presence. It’s about spending time with the people closest to you, and reminding them in words and actions how much they mean to you. Presence, in fact, is what removes the pain and fear from death much more so than anything else a person can do, including practicing for it. As Dick tells his daughter, “I’ve got my Heaven right here on Earth, with all of you.”

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10

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About the Author

Abby Olcese is a freelance film critic, proud Midwesterner and pie enthusiast. Find her on twitter at @indieabby88.