Typically, people die only once. But the titular character in the stellar new Netflix documentary Dick Johnson Is Dead dies quite a few times.
The octogenarian psychiatrist is the father of filmmaker Kirsten Johnson, who came up with the concept for this film around the time of her dad’s retirement from his practice due to his worsening dementia. As a way of battling the anxiety of inevitably losing her only remaining parent with pitch-black humor, she conceived of shooting staged versions of her dad dying in cartoonish and irregular ways. Whether he’s getting knocked out with a falling AC unit or fatally slapped with a 2×4 from a clueless construction worker, Dick and the stuntmen that stand in for him play out these macabre, Harold and Maude-esque fantasies both with good cheer and technical precision.
However, not all of these fantastical scenes are quite so morbid. Kirsten Johnson also stages an elaborate sequence in heaven, in which confetti appears to constantly fall in slow motion as Dick gleefully plays clarinet for jitterbugging historical figures. One transcendental shot depicts Dick slowly floating in the air along with his favorite chair and ottoman as he seems to either rest or meditate in his high-rise New York office. Even Jesus makes an appearance, washing Dick’s malformed feet until they are miraculously made whole once again. Outside of these cinematic reveries, Kirsten spends the rest of her documentary sharing candid conversations between herself and her father with topics ranging from religion to chocolate cake.
This is obviously tricky and extremely personal material, and half the fun of watching Dick Johnson Is Dead is marveling at director Kirsten Johnson’s ability to gracefully maneuver the tightrope of tonal management. We always get the sense that Dick is in on the “joke,” as it were — “I’ve always wanted to be in the movies!” he assures his grandkids in the film’s opening moments.
Though we never see Kirsten explicitly explain the nature of her unconventional documentary to her dad, he seems game for these silly stunts and opines, “You see a lot of weird stuff in movies that never happens.” As production assistants explain the mechanics of a device that shoots out fake blood for one of his stunts, he clarifies that he doesn’t want to use his actual blood for the pump, reminding the young assistants, “I like my blood, I’ve become accustomed to it!”
Those quotes should give one an idea just how good-natured, convivial, and frankly adorable Dick Johnson comes across throughout this wild experiment of a movie. There’s something so rewarding about watching a film so fixated with mortality and disintegration of the human body also center itself around a protagonist who has the best possible attitude and perspective on the subjects.
In a country where discussions about death are often regarded as taboo, audiences may initially blanch at this cinematic equivalent of “whistling past the graveyard,” but it’s easy to be drawn in once the poignant and playful rhythm of Kirsten Johnson’s film is established.
Much like last year’s outstanding The Farewell, which also tenderly dealt with the prospect of losing our loved ones, the film furthers this cultural conversation in a similarly amiable manner.
To give her movie another layer of unconventionality, Kirsten Johnson implements metatextual touches that blur the line between fiction and non-fiction, as when she uses a skywriter plane to outline a passage of time in the “narrative.”
Despite its unique approach to its themes, the film is far from inaccessible and those who stumble upon it while aimlessly browsing Netflix’s seemingly infinite catalog may be pleasantly surprised by it. Dick Johnson Is Dead is a powerful reminder that nobody lives forever, but thankfully, movies do.
New movies this weekend
Streaming on Netflix is Hubie Halloween, a horror comedy starring Adam Sandler and Julie Bowen about a Salem, Massachusetts, resident who’s out to save his hometown’s Halloween from monsters.
Opening in theaters is The War with Grandpa, a family comedy starring Robert De Niro and Uma Thurman about a prank war that starts between a boy and his grandfather when they’re forced to share the same living space.
Available to watch on Hulu is Books of Blood, an anthology movie based on the Clive Barker horror book series starring Britt Robertson and Anna Friel which interweaves three terrifying stories.