Dick Johnson is Dead skillfully blends fantasy and reality together, beautifully examining the impact of a man’s life.
Like any film, a good documentary should either engage its viewer on an emotional or intellectual level. While it is possible to do both, the best nonfiction films choose one side over the other to maximize their effect on the viewer. Recently we’ve seen films, such as Icarus and 13th, that have used objective filmmaking techniques to communicate their ideas, letting the viewer come to their own conclusions. In stark contrast, Honeyland and The Act of Killing utilizeda more avant-garde approach with their execution to tackle much broader issues to equal success. With her second feature Dick Johnson is Dead, director Kirsten Johnson (Cameraperson) uses the universal concepts of aging and family to explore what it means to say goodbye to the ones you love. Creating a brisk look at one man’s life that will stick with you long after the credits roll.
The premise to Dick Johnson is Dead is admittedly a strange one. With her father’s (Dick Johnson) memory fading fast, Kirsten Johnson has decided to create several fictional scenarios to kill off her father to cope with his impending loss. The situations range from a mundane heart attack to being impaled by a board filled with nails at a construction site, often to darkly comic effect. While these scenes can come off as disturbing and macabre, their purpose as a sort of pseudo-therapy is clear thanks to extended scenes before and after that detail the various film techniques used from stunt doubles to fake blood packs. Doing this allows the film to function both as look at Dick Johnson’s life but also as an exploration of the immortality that comes with being preserved on celluloid.
Going along with the idea of legacy, when not killing her father Kirsten spends the rest of the runtime in the present visiting friends of her father. It becomes clear early on that Dick Johnson has led a very full life, with friends from church and those who knew him through his job as a psychiatrist, having nothing but positive opinions about him. Juxtaposed against his death scenes, we see the multiple ways in which the memory of someone can live forever, either through the lives you personally touch or through those who have the privilege of witnessing a part of you through film. A lesser director would have stretched out the runtime in order to give the material room to breathe, but Kirsten wisely keeps the runtime short and allows multiple ideas to be explored simultaneously without overwhelming the viewer.
In a year full of great documentaries, it’s been hard to pick the film that best encapsulates this year. Both Boys State and Time have explored timely social issues with nuance and grace, while Tiger King and The Social Dilemma have dominated the internet. Compared to these, Dick Johnson is Dead doesn’t seem as memorable, with its small scale and intimate subject matter. However, with everything the past year has thrown at us, it’s a perfect reminder to treasure the time we have with the people we love, because we never know when we could lose them.