Netflix's Dick Johnson Is Dead turns documentary (and dads) into a radical art form: Review
No one lives to die another day like Dick Johnson, the octogenarian subject of his daughter Kirsten’s tender, tricky documentary (on Netflix Oct. 2). Whether he’s being crushed by a rogue air conditioner or waylaid by lethal chocolate cake, Dick — a long practicing Seattle psychiatrist and faithful Seventh Day Adventist facing a diagnosis of dementia — gets knocked down, but always, Chumbawamba-style, seems to get back up again.
That’s the magic of moviemaking (a soft pad, a stand-in, a few low-key special effects), but also of Kirsten Johnson’s wishful thinking: Faced with the inevitable loss of an aging parent, she chooses instead to take his demise, at least on celluloid, into her own hands. And so she sends him through a sort of Final Destination gauntlet, discarding various fatal scenarios as she goes.
His reward each time? Not heaven, exactly — Adventists hold that believers don't ascend after death but enter a long sleep, essentially, until Judgment Day — but a sort of a celebratory limbo: a kitsch custom wonderland populated by whirling dancers, chocolate fountains, and fistfuls of glittery confetti along with talismans of his beloved late wife, herself the partial subject of Johnson's equally audacious and disorienting 2016 meta-memoir Cameraperson.
Those surreal set pieces make for some Dead’s most unforgettable moments visually, but the story's biggest gift by far is the sunny, unassuming soul at its center. Like a sturdier Mr. Rogers who just happens to prefer red anoraks to cardigans, Dick comes off as both a kind of holy sage and an extremely good sport — a man whose gentle, pure-hearted exuberance swells to fill nearly every frame.
In confronting his imminent mental and physical decline as radically as she does, Johnson (known for her cinematography on films like Citizenfour and Pray the Devil Back to Hell) throws into sharp relief just how little American culture, for all its wellness-cult optimism and casually brutal pastimes, deals with the bare facts of mortality, and what it means to watch a loved one lose the things that make them so intrinsically themselves.
That alone makes the movie, which took home a Special Jury Prize for innovation in non-fiction storytelling at this year's Sundance, more than worth watching. What transcends that narrative though isn't just Johnson's bravura style in telling it, but the immeasurable love between its maker and its muse; the surest evidence, if any exists, of a force even death — by perilous stairwell or flying appliance, fate or design — can't end. A-