Dick Johnson Is Dead review – a startling confrontation with death | Film

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Kirsten Johnson is the cinematographer and film-maker who in 2016 created, or curated, Cameraperson, an arresting, dreamlike collage of material that she had shot over years, combined with footage of her own family. Now she brings this family further and more boldly into the spotlight (while keeping back a bit herself) with this startling and rather profound look at mortality and at her own adored elderly father, a beatifically smiling retired psychiatrist called C Richard “Dick” Johnson.

Some years ago, Dick Johnson was diagnosed with dementia, the disease to which the director had lost her mother a decade previously. So she appears to have taken a creative and therapeutic decision to confront her dad’s looming death head-on, to cauterise the pain of death with outrageously explicit and transgressive spectacles.

With his co-operation – although the question of informed consent is never addressed – she films Dick in various absurd, bizarre and tasteless situations; with the aid of stunt doubles she imagines his violent death from chaotic and macabre mishaps (perhaps inspired by the death of her grandmother in a car wreck).

She gets him to lie in a coffin in the church where his wife’s funeral took place and which will assuredly be the site of his own. Then, with the aid of elaborate stage-sets, she imagines him in the afterlife, with his late wife, enjoying the fantasy dinner-party company of dead greats including Bruce Lee. And Dick himself seems always to be easygoing, childlike, tolerant – and heartbreaking.

It all builds up to a remarkable coup de cinéma: a Buñuelian finale that is startling and moving. This is both an exploratory personal project and a thought-experiment of a film. Her dad is succumbing to dementia and, like so many survivors and carers in a similar situation, she feels that he is, in some sense, already dead and this is his afterlife. But then the boundaries between healthy life, illness and death are always less clear than we think. Maybe we are all like Dick Johnson, smilingly going about our business as if death has nothing to do with us.

In cinemas and on Netflix from 2 October.

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Source: The Guardian
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