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Movie Review: Tackling An Existential Fear Head On

Dick Johnson Is Dead. So we are told by the title of documentarian Kirsten Johnson’s latest film, although it’s not actually true just yet. 

Dick Johnson is Kirsten Johnson’s father, and as far as we can tell he’s lived his life as an extremely intelligent, kind, good-humored man, which he still is, but he’s also sliding into dementia. Dick’s wife—Kirsten’s mother—also had dementia, and died some years before, so they all know what’s in store. Dick has recently closed his psychiatric practice and moved across the country to live with Kirsten, and while he says he doesn’t feel all that different, he also says he must be different, because people tell him he keeps forgetting things.

That title, Dick Johnson Is Dead, says a couple things—one is that this film doesn’t flinch from the reality of death. The other is that maybe we can find a way to lighten up about it. Yes, Dick Johnson Is Dead is funny. Sometimes very funny. Dick is a clever guy, and seems pretty realistic about his mortality, and so he lets Kirsten stage various scenarios in which he’s killed in remarkable ways. An air conditioner falls from a window and hits him on the head. His jugular vein is punctured in an accident and he bleeds out on the sidewalk. Does this make you cringe? It is shocking when we see it, but the surprise also instantly gives us the release of laughter. And then a strange feeling of personal conflict—is it OK to be laughing? Yes, is the answer. It is. Partly because we must. But also, they’re fine with it, shouldn’t we be? Death is such a part of life, we have to find a way to deal with it. The Johnsons confront this by imagining ways Dick might die, ways other than his internal disintegration.

Kirsten Johnson made one of the all-time great documentaries in 2016’s Cameraperson, a visual memoir of sorts made of footage from her decades shooting films. She’s highly skilled at showing us larger stories through specific lenses. The fear of death is nearly universal, our biology mandates that, and yet we do so much to avoid confronting it, and we become uncomfortable when others do.

Dick Johnson Is Dead says maybe we need to get over that by telling us the story of a good man and his loving daughter, who know death is coming and don’t try to get out of its way.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.