Thank you to Netflix for allowing me to watch and review this movie!
Director: Kirsten Johnson
Writer(s): Nels Bangerter, Kirsten Johnson
Cast: Dick Johnson
Synopsis: A daughter helps her father prepare for the end of his life.
Filmmakers have the privilege of being able to capture the most human of moments in the most extraordinary ways. A true filmmaker can use their platform in such a way to keep specific people, places, things, etc. alive and in the world for long after everyone is dead and gone. Memories fade, but moments last forever, and being able to capture the moments is such a gift that certain people have the privilege of being able to accomplish.
That is exactly what Kirsten Johnson does here, and she does it in such an honest way that I have never seen before. She is not documenting a moment in time, or a subject she cares strongly about. She is not a historian looking to bring back some kind of forgotten relic from the past. She is a daughter, who after losing her mother years before, knows the time with her father is slowly coming to an end. She is able to capture these specific moments with and of her dad that will live on in the realm of film forever.
This documentary is a clever and wonderful blend of reality and fiction as she is documenting her time making a movie about the many different ways her dad could die. This includes many moments of hilarious and shocking death scenes, flashy scenes of heaven, and precious moments of Richard and his “wife” back together again. She is giving him the death and afterlife he always wanted, and these incredibly clever scenes bring some really hilarious moments that I was not expecting from this.
They also brought some relief to the purely heartbreaking moments that happened in between the fictionalized “film” within the film. The root of this story isn’t about making a movie but about documenting the moments of her father before he loses his memory. As I mentioned earlier, we find out in the film that Kirsten’s mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and eventually passed away, but as Dick says, “She was gone years before she passed”. In this film you watch Dick begin to go down that same path, as he begins to be forgetful in certain moments, and doesn’t remember where he is or what he is doing at times.
He doesn’t fully have dementia yet, which I think is the scarier part, because he knows and can recollect that he is beginning to forget things he once knew. He can feel himself beginning to lose it, and it is documented for us to see in some really tender moments that brought me to tears. The narrative mixed in with reality really comes to a head here because the climax of this movie is one that I still don’t know if it was reality or fiction. It broke me down in ways that I never thought this documentary would be able to.
The final moments of the film are a funeral for Dick that is being recorded and the moments during this funeral are so real it can’t help but make you feel. Especially from his best friend, who we see in the beginning is hurting from the entire process, fictionalized or not. Because while there is a fictionalized narrative to this story, it is a very real outcome that isn’t as far away as it once was. That is the hardest thing there is to grasp about this film and life as a whole.
Dick Johnson is dead, but is he really? The end of the film has his daughter Kirsten recite the line “Dick Johnson is dead” three times in a closet. The title of this film is an interesting and clever one because their should really be a question mark at the end of it. I don’t mean to say this in some ambiguous way, but in a metaphysical one. Dick Johnson will never fully die. Maybe his physical form will pass, but Kirsten is able to capture the life and death of her father in a way to keep him and more importantly his memories alive. His memory, charm, and overall charismatic nature will be here long after we all fade away, and in 100 years someone could find this and relive the story of Dick Johnson. That is what is so incredible about the film is the ability to stand the test of time. Dick Johnson will never die because he will always live through this film.
Final: Dick Johnson is Dead takes us through life… and death, in a way that I have never seen before. A sweet and honesty movie that shows the power of filmmaking. A documentary that blends fiction with reality as a way to keep the memory alive, even when it is fading. A sweet, funny, charismatic, and heartfelt film that deserves to be seen. Learn the name, because I think this film is going to be a major player in the Best Documentary category come Awards Season.
Current Tomato Score: 100%
Current Metacritic: 93
Current IMDb: 7/10
Awards Prospects: Best Documentary
Jacob is a film critic and co-founder of the Music City Drive-In. He is a member of the Music City Film Critics’ Association and specializes in the awards season. You can find him on Twitter @Tberry57.