Dick Johnson is Dead is a strange documentary with a bizarre premise. The idea is that Kirsten Johnson (documentary maker) is helping her father prepare for the end of his life, linked to Alzheimer’s, through staging elaborate deaths for him. The documentary explains this as giving Kirsten’s father control over his own death and in some part also helping Kirsten cope with the fact she will lose her second parent to the same disease that took the life of her first.
Whether purposefully or not, the documentary manages to portray Alzheimer’s from the sufferers point of view, showing the fears, confusion and what Dick Johnson understands will happen to him. The fact that his daughter is the one creating the documentary, talking through these elements with him and managing to get present these interviews with such intimate detail, means that the information feels raw and the emotion is very real.
It is also fascinating but heart breaking to watch as the documentary unfolds and we see the slow debilitation of Dick Johnson as he starts to succumb to his illness. An eloquent man at the beginning, throwing himself head first into the premise of the movie, is slowly replaced with a man who seems confused at what is happening and you begin to worry for his involvement.
Some of that could some from the fact that the deaths that are staged are so creative and well realised. As if jumping from an action movie set at times, you are usually presented with the death at first and then the behind the scenes of how it is filmed. When the deaths are presented they are shocking, some quite violent while others are more inconsequential and “ordinary.” The way they are created is also as fascinating, although towards the end off the movie, you begin to question whether the reason for these deaths has started to get lost in the process.
At the beginning of the movie, as you watch Dick Johnson actively take part in the deaths that are being staged, you see the benefit and how cathartic this creative process must be for both Dick and his daughter. However, as his disease begins to get worse and his confusion worse with it, there are times when the movie strays into ethically dubious territory, placing Dick into situations which are very traumatic and it is clear is distressing him.
It is when he is left in a house he doesn’t recognise or when he is presented with a heavily bleeding neck wound which looks uncomfortably real, that you wonder whether this is for Dick after all or whether it has become more about how Kirsten is going to cope with the loss of her parents. This purpose would be fair alongside her father’s coping too but when it feels like it is at his expense, the films becomes an uncomfortable watch.
This only gets worse as the movie enters its finale. Throughout there have been cryptic allusions to heaven which are confusing interludes to the main story at best, but the final “death” and the gathering that follows it sits awkwardly, especially when you aren’t necessarily convinced everyone realises it isn’t real.
Overall, Dick Johnson is Dead is a very unique and well-crafted look at not just the effects of Alzheimer’s disease but how we deal with mortality and the impending death of those close to us. The staging of the deaths and the behind the scenes aspects are very interesting but as the movie progresses, you begin to wonder who the actual “therapy” of the movie is for.
Rating – 3.5
(1 – Awful, 2 – Average, 3 – Good, 4 – Great, 5! – Must See)
As always get in touch below with a comment but also like our page on Facebook (Distinct Chatter) or follow us on Twitter – @distinctchat