Netflix UK film review: Dick Johnson Is Dead
James R | On 10, Jan 2021
Director: Kirsten Johnson
Cast: Michael Hilow, Ana Hoffman, Dick Johnson, Kirsten Johnson
Watch Dick Johnson Is Dead online in the UK: Netflix UK
How many times have you said “I could kill you” at a loved one in anger? Now imagine if you actually meant it – and did it repeatedly? That’s the apparently bizarre starting point for Dick Johnson Is Dead, a documentary about a director bumping off her dad over and over again. The deaths aren’t real, of course, but that morbid cycle of on-screen demise is no less shocking or gob-smacking – or, most surprising of all, entertaining.
The filmmaker at the helm is Kirsten Johnson, who was behind 2016’s inventive Cameraperson, and this even more personal piece is as innovative and ambitious as documentary cinema gets. Her motivation begins with her father, Richard, a retired clinical psychiatrist, suffering from dementia. Having lost her mother a decade ago, she sets about confronting his diagnosis the only way she can think of: through her work. And so she recruits him to star in his own death scene – or, more accurately, a compilation of death scenes, which see him shuffle off this mortal coil on camera time and time again.
What ensues is an increasingly absurd and often hilarious string of contrived scenarios, like watching a happy version of the Final Destination franchise. And Johnson, to his credit, smilingly plays along, happily pretending to fall down some stairs or get hit on the head by an air conditioning unit – and then gets told by Kirsten where to place his hands to make it look most convincing. With some stunt doubles and a whole team of practical effects gurus, the result is gloriously obscene, particularly when he pretends to be struck in the neck by a passer-by’s large parcel and then collapses in a sea of red on a nearby post box.
Throughout, Dick Johnson is a delight, gamely doing what he can to help his daughter come to terms with what’s happening to him – and while you might question just how much he expected to be involved in that arrangement, Kirsten is right there questioning the ethics of it all with us, and you never for one second doubt the affection with which he humbly follows her instructions. That even, in one sequence, extends to him climbing into a coffin in the church where his funeral will one day take place.
“Just the idea that I might ever lose this man is too much to bear,” she confesses at one moment, and that heart-wrenching truth lies beneath the playful surface. At its heart, this is a study of fear and dread as well as love, pride and partnership, and their teamwork and communication bring a moving honesty to the whole affair that breaks through any taboo or awkward barriers. Death’s sting is still there, but it’s blunted by warmth and humour, and, by preserving Dick through the timeless prism of cinema, turned into something oddly beautiful, unexpectedly profound and strangely life-affirming.
Dick Johnson Is Dead is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.