I had a grandmother and a great-uncle die of Alzheimer’s, and it’s hard to imagine anything worse. To gradually lose your memories, faculties, ability to recognize loved ones, and personality even as your peripheral hardware remains fully functional seems far more terrifying than any horror movie (the only thing that comes close is ALS, Alzheimer’s perfectly inverse horror, in which your conscious mind gets a front-row seat as your motor functions slowly sputter and fail).
Meanwhile, every awards season inevitably brings with it an acclaimed film about Alzheimer’s or dementia, usually starring some beloved leading actor artfully forgetting. I always avoid them as a general rule. Still Alice? Still haven’t seen it. Let’s keep it that way.
I say all this to preface my rave for Dick Johnson Is Dead, which hit Netflix this week, which is ostensibly about dementia and mortality, yet doesn’t feel like having your nose rubbed in all the things we spend all day trying desperately not to think about. Good art doesn’t just reaffirm that a thing exists, it gives you a new framework for thinking about it. Through its personal approach and creative structure, Dick Johnson Is Dead manages to make reckoning with a loved one’s mortality not just entertaining, but oddly uplifting. The empathy and humanity it applies to death make it, above all else, life-affirming.
Director Kirsten Johnson is an award-winning documentary camera operator and cinematographer, who has worked on everything from Citizenfour to Fahrenheit 9/11. She directed a memoir of sorts, Cameraperson, in 2016, and in Dick Johnson is Dead she brings all her skills and connections to bear in profiling her father, C. Richard Johnson, an 86-year-old psychiatrist who has recently given up his home, psychiatry practice, and car.
Johnson mixes interviews and unscripted footage of her father going through his daily life interspersed with fictional vignettes in which Dick Johnson himself stars in his daughter’s imagined scenarios for how he might die, from heart attack to car crash to falling A/C units. Carrying it all is Dick Johnson himself, who gamely executes his daughter’s every whim, whether it involves lying in a coffin or clamping his hand over a plastic tube pumping fake blood. There’s a natural whimsy to the way they bond over the collaborative artifice — picking out costumes, discussing the blocking with stuntmen, having gruesome make-up applied — to the point that you could easily imagine all of this as a Wes Anderson movie. Pagoda, where’s my javelina? It’s a high-brow version of that Jackass bit where Johnny Knoxville took his own grandma to the taxidermist. (It was a wonderful bit).
It helps, of course, that Kirsten Johnson has captured her father at the perfect point in time. He seems, to the casual observer, like a kindly old man, who can still walk, drive, maintain a conversation, and retains his singular personality. He’s engaged and engaging, thoughtful and introspective but almost permanently upbeat — the perfect documentary subject. Yet if you look closely enough, the signs of his decline are clear and ominous. Double-booking patients and getting prescriptions messed up, waking up in the middle of the night not knowing where he is. She’s caught him at the moment when he’s still capable of recognizing his own decline, at which he’s almost two different people. The self-aware, lucid guy he is in the morning, and the confused sleepwalker whose actions Morning Dick doesn’t remember and are, in effect, those of a stranger. Dick Johnson is both the Jekyll and Hyde of his own dementia.
If you’re considering not watching the movie at this point in the review (and trust me, I would be!) know that Dick and Kirsten’s love for each other and the constant humor and playfulness of her approach keep Dick Johnson is Dead from ever getting too depressing. It’s too funny, too sweet, too hopeful to ever be too sad.
That Kirsten Johnson found the perfect moment to film her dad is more than mere serendipity. Johnson’s mother, who died of Alzheimer’s seven years prior, appears briefly as a cautionary tale, a confused woman with a faraway look on her face who doesn’t recognize her own daughter. “Believe it or not, this is the only footage I have of my mother,” Johnson tells us, via voiceover.
She never overdoes the tragedy of watching her mother fade away, it’s there merely to contextualize the movie that we’re watching. Dick Johnson Is Dead is a corrective, in which Kirsten Johnson is not just trying to rub our noses in her father’s mortality, but to do right by him while she still can. The narrative arc is her own redemption.
Watching this, it’s impossible not to think of all the loved ones we could’ve done so much better by but couldn’t, either because we didn’t have the time, the time didn’t exist, or it just made us too sad. Whatever, there’s always a reason, most of them eminently reasonable. And so watching it, we get our own vicarious redemption. The kind words friends say about Dick Johnson while he’s still around to hear them (standing in the wings while a dummy lies in a coffin) become the words we wish we’d said to our mother, grandma, grandpa, great uncle, whoever. It’s the kind of movie that will probably make you cry, but it will be a good cry, the kind that makes you hug your loved ones a little more tightly afterwards.