Dick Johnson is Dead (Kirsten Johnson, 2020, USA)

                Dick Johnson Is Dead is a moving and humorous documentary from director Kirsten Johnson. The film focuses on Kirsten’s father Dick, who has received a dementia diagnosis. There are fantastic scenarios portrayed in the film in which Dick dies in various ways. Some of these are quite violent and gruesome accidents. These are often followed by Dick’s fantasies of what heaven would be like. In the meantime, there is a quite serious personal drama playing out involving Dick slowly losing his faculties and having to move in with Kirsten in her New York apartment. The resulting film has universal themes, although the juxtaposition of the dark humor with reality doesn’t always work.

               The various scenarios of Dick dying – falling down a staircase, being hit by a falling air conditioning unit – would seem to be the major point of the film. However, it seems Kirsten Johnson mainly uses these as something of a gimmick to advertise the film. In fact, these scenarios only make up a small portion of the film. Most of the film is devoted to Dick Johnson himself. He is a likeable guy, a practicing Seventh Day Adventist and now retired Seattle psychiatrist who lost his wife to Alzheimer’s several years ago.

               The imagined deaths then add some levity to a story that would be, on its own, very painful to watch. Anyone who has lost a family member over a long period of time will resonate with the story on display here. The film keeps us guessing whether Dick will ultimately pass. There is even a funeral at the finale, but all is not as it seems. This playfulness makes the film, which otherwise might become too depressing, very watchable. Kirsten’s film is not perfect, but it does provide a thoughtful and moving examination of a subject that everyone faces in life.



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