When I asked my wife if she’d like to watch the new Netflix documentary Dick Johnson Is Dead with me, she asked what it was about. As I explained it to her, I realized that the movie I was describing sounded a little bit disturbing. When I finished, my wife looked horrified and said, “No, no thanks.” I’m still working on her, but I’m here to tell you that despite all this, the movie is amazing and you should absolutely watch it.
In Dick Johnson Is Dead, the documentary cameraperson (and director of Cameraperson) Kirsten Johnson is faced with her father’s dementia diagnosis. Nearly a decade before, her mother had died of Alzheimer’s, and the experience was excruciating: She felt she lost her mom, abandoned her, and had nothing left to remember her by.* This time, she wants to handle things differently. She asks her father if he’ll make a movie with her. In the movie, they’ll talk about his upcoming death, but they’ll also, puckishly, enact it—using the magic of cinema to kill him off in a half-dozen staged accidents. They’ll even send him up to heaven so he can see what it’s like. In this way, daughter can capture her father before his decline; father can, in an odd way, face his own mortality; and father and daughter can have a project to work on together now that he’s moving into her New York City apartment.
And so we see retired psychiatrist Dick Johnson smashed by a falling air conditioner, contorted on the floor at the bottom of the stairs, driving head-on into another car in a tunnel, and pierced by construction debris. (“I’m bleeding!” Dick says as fake blood squirts out of his neck. “I’m bleeding to death.”) We also see the business surrounding this odd family project: the prop guy and his styrofoam air conditioner, the makeup artist who teaches Dick how the blood pump will work, the soundwoman who doesn’t like watching Dick fake his own death. “That really hurt!” Dick says with delight, watching a stuntman taking a particularly nasty fall.
Through it all, Dick Johnson is sweet, funny, a little weird. He’s clearly having a ball, helping his daughter in her work, participating in his own demise. In the movie’s version of Heaven, his ailing body is cured, popcorn falls from the sky, and he is greeted by his wife, Bruce Lee, and Farrah Fawcett. On the Heaven soundstage, a crew member brings Dick a chair to sit and watch the proceedings; later we see him napping in that chair as the grips bustle around him. The more we watch Dick, the more we love him, seeing in him the kindness and curiosity that has made his daughter love him so much.
We know that this story must end with Dick Johnson’s actual death. But I found that as I watched Dick Johnson Is Dead, I came to dread the immense sadness of his end—of all of our ends—much less. The result is a movie that’s sad, but not at all unbearable—in fact, that’s oddly inspiring. What a gift Kirsten Johnson gave her father and herself. (And her kids, who helped brainstorm ways to kill off Grandpa.) Dick Johnson Is Dead is a testament to the power of talking forthrightly about death with those you love. It shows how death may never lose its power, exactly, but you can make yourselves partners in the process, not victims of it.
My dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a few years ago. We’ve been lucky, comparatively, in that his memory loss has not proceeded as quickly as Dick Johnson’s does. But I’ve struggled to talk about the disease with him, and have barely broached the reality of his likely end. Dick Johnson Is Dead avoids, for the most part, the typical artistic clichés of memory loss: There’s no fading away, no disappearance. Instead, the movie makes clear that Dick Johnson with dementia is not some watered-down version of the man he used to be. He’s a person, with his own quirks, his own creativity, and a kind and winning personality that if anything comes into sharper focus as his memory falters. (Late at night, he wakes his daughter up, convinced that there’s a patient outside who needs his help.) The movie is as much his creation as his daughter’s, a testament to the power of what the MacArthur-winning gerontologist Anne Basting—who devises theater in nursing homes with dementia patients—calls “creative care.”
Perhaps when I have lost my own father as my wife has hers, I’ll regard a project like Dick Johnson Is Dead with as much apprehension as she did. Perhaps there’s something about my geographic distance from him that creates dispassion akin to the documentarian’s camera, that allows me to see this film’s conceit as fascinating but not upsetting. I don’t know. But I watched the movie with mounting delight, thrilled for Kirsten and Dick that in their final years together they have been able to make something splendid and surprising, something that reflects their shared interests, their shared genius, and their shared love. Though Kirsten Johnson never loses her precise cameraperson’s eye, there’s nothing unfeeling about Dick Johnson Is Dead. I hope I can find a way to talk with my father as frankly as Kirsten talks to Dick. And I hope that when I’m on my way out, my daughters take me as seriously, and treat me as kindly, as this beautiful movie does its hero.
Correction, Sept. 30, 2020: This review incorrectly referred to the type of dementia Dick Johnson suffers from in Dick Johnson Is Dead. He is diagnosed with another dementia, not specifically Alzheimer’s.