THE STORY – A filmmaker and her elderly father stage his death in various ways to help them face his inevitable demise.
THE CAST – Dick Johnson & Kirsten Johnson
THE TEAM – Kirsten Johnson (Director/Writer) & Nels Bangerter (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 89 Minutes
By Josh Parham
It will always be particularly special when a film can tap into something so elemental that it affects the viewer in such a profound way. The ability to forge a compelling narrative with endearing characters is a wonderful discovery, particularly when its story highlights resonant themes that speak with great introspection. These tasks are even more impressive when they’re the result of a documentary – a medium that has to communicate these ideas through organic assembly rather than wholesale fictional creation. It’s always impressive when these films do this, and it’s precisely why “Dick Johnson Is Dead” is not only moving but also a miraculous feat of storytelling.
In the film, director Kirsten Johnson sets out to document her father. Dick Johnson is a retiring psychiatrist who has recently been showing signs of Alzheimer’s and is giving up his practice to live with his daughter and grandchildren. As a method of exploring the psychological effects these events have on both father and daughter, the director decides to film invented segments with a full cast and crew that play out scenarios of other possible deaths that could be inflicted on her dad. These scenes are juxtaposed against the conflicts of their real life and how the emotional toll the disease causes much reflection on both of their lives.
One is immediately struck by the unique methods that Johnson uses to direct this material, especially through the staged sequences. They’re indeed impressive based simply on their production value alone and have a genuine way of creating investment in the drama that depicts startling death scenes. However, they also indulge in fantasy sequences that further comment on the life and legacy of her father, and it becomes apparent that these moments have such an artful execution to them that they never feel superfluous or tangential. The only deficit is an overbearing score that plays throughout the film, but it feels especially emphasized during these segments. It’s the only false note that actively works against the engagement of the piece.
While it’s fascinating to watch the meticulous nature of filming these “re-enactments” of sorts, particularly with the presence of a female-dominated crew, the personal journey this family takes in their more intimate moments is where the true power of the film resides. So many will recognize the heartbreaking agony that afflicts those with this disease, and how every person within that circle is affected. It’s an emotionally devastating perspective on the nature of death and the lifetime worth of stories and feelings that are occupying these conversations. The frank and powerful discussions about all types of loss speak to a sincerity in the storytelling, and it manages to highlight the poignancy without ever feeling overtly morbid.
Despite the taxing subject matter, a reason why the film never falls into a deep pit of despair is because of the shining personality of Dick Johnson himself. There’s an immeasurable amount of warmth and charm that he produces in every moment he appears, which ends up making his battle with this disease all the more painful to witness. His ability to recognize the overwhelming sadness of his state of mind and the distress it is causing in his family is matched equally by his witty retorts and jovial demeanor. He contributes much of the humor delivered throughout, and it’s greatly appreciated. The film does have plenty of light-hearted moments throughout that are mixed with the more solemn events. That tone reflects back on the nature of life, and it’s completely embodied by his persona. It makes this tragic tale ballooned by a sense of ironic optimism.
“Dick Johnson Is Dead” is not the first documentary where a filmmaker turns their lens inward and crafts a personal story about their own family. It’s also not the first one to use slightly unconventional methods within the medium to communicate its ideas. However, few can translate these themes with such genuine earnestness as Kirsten Johnson does here. Undoubtedly, this exploration of a family coming to terms with impending loss is both riveting and agonizing. At the same time, the tone never makes the misery feel unbearable. The charming portrait of its protagonist helps to keep one invested, and despite the melancholy on display, it never becomes overwhelming. In the end, what’s presented is a sad yet touching commentary on life and death that’s incredibly affecting. This astounding accomplishment truly deserves distinction as one of the best films of the year.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – A uniquely poignant and touching look at how the legacy of a life and the impending nature of death affect us and those closest in our lives. The melancholy feels authentic and the humor is sincere and appreciated. The filmmaking expertly crafts this story around an engaging and charming subject.
THE BAD – The score is often overbearing and is more of a distraction.