A filmmaker says goodbye to her father by killing him repeatedly in this moving documentary
By Diana Beechener
The first time Dick Johnson dies, he’s flattened to the sidewalk by a plummeting air conditioning unit. The 86-year-old former psychiatrist crumples to the ground, a pool of blood welling up behind his body on the pavement. It won’t be the last time he dies.
Five years ago, documentary filmmaker Kirsten Johnson (Cameraperson) got a disturbing phone call. Her beloved father Dick, who was still a practicing psychiatrist in Seattle, was doing things that concerned his friends. He would forget that certain friends had died years ago. He would double book appointments. He drove through a construction site and drove home on four flat tires. Kirsten knew what it meant, she’d already been through it with her mother, who had died years ago after a long descent into dementia.
Dick knows something’s wrong, too. He agrees to live with his daughter, hoping he can have at least a few good years with Kirsten and her children before his memory fades completely.
But Kirsten isn’t content to let the man she loves so dearly just waste away in her apartment. She wants to deal with her feelings about his death by facing it. Kirsten proposes an idea: She wants to make a film about Dick’s death, killing him in a myriad of ways until she becomes comfortable with the idea of letting him go.
It’s a radical idea, but Dick is thrilled to help his daughter cope with his inevitable decline. The pair begin to dream up a number of inventive deaths—falling down stairs, a horrible construction accident, head traumas. The two even dream up their own version of heaven, where Dick and his wife (portrayed by professional dancers) trip the light fantastic in a confetti storm.
But as their bond grows, so does Dick’s mental decline. He begins to forget things. He starts waking up in Kirsten’s small apartment and trying to leave at 3am. When she leaves him with a friend to take her kids trick or treating, he panics when he doesn’t recognize his surroundings. Death isn’t just a goof or a flight of fancy for the filmmaker, it’s a real, scary thing that looms over both of them.
An incredibly moving documentary about learning to live with a loved one who mentally and physically is slipping away day-by-day, Dick Johnson Is Dead is a surprisingly uplifting film. Johnson carefully navigates between comedy and tragedy, never veering too hard in either direction. The result is a meditation on losing someone, as well as a call to celebrate every second you’re able to be with those you love.
This isn’t a movie that seeks to exploit. Kirsten is constantly checking in with her father, making sure he’s comfortable and knows what’s going on. There are a few heartbreaking moments in the documentary when it becomes clear that Dick has forgotten what’s going on. In these moments, Kirsten abandons her film and goes to her father; their bond is more important than getting the shot. She also never films him when he’s having a breakdown or sundowning. This is a movie about her love for her father and she works hard to maintain his dignity while frankly discussing what’s happening.
The true success of the movie is how beautifully Kirsten conveys her father’s personality. A religious, kind man, Dick hates his dementia, not because of how it affects his own faculties, but because he can see his memory lapses hurt the feelings of the people around him. He hates not remembering that a friend’s husband has died. He wants to be able to love and support those he knows.
We go with Dick to a cognitive test (like the ones made famous by President Trump) and we see the fear and pain on his face when he realizes he’s failing the exam. These stunningly intimate moments, paired with Dick and Kirsten’s goofy fake deaths highlight the deep bond between daughter and father, and how scared both are to lose each other.
Mental decline is rarely addressed in films. The depression and fear of watching someone you love fade away from you piece by piece doesn’t make for a good popcorn flick. But Kirsten and Dick’s fearless commitment to documenting Dick’s decline is both beautiful and universal. We all experience death, but few of us deal with it head-on.
Perhaps you don’t want to fake your own bloody death several times to deal with your own mortality, but watching Dick and Kirsten walk into the unknown together is a wonderful experience. If you’ve lost a beloved family member, this documentary might be a little close to the bone, but its hopeful loving message is one worth a few tears.
Dick Long Is Dead is available on Netflix.
Great Documentary * PG-13 * 89 mins.