Dick Johnson isn’t dead. Not yet, at least. But he will be. We all will, sooner or later. And it’s sooner for Dick if his daughter has anything to say about it.
Born C. Richard Johnson in 1932, Dick was a Seattle psychiatrist and by the looks of his home and office, a successful one at that. His wife, Katie Jo, was a photographer, but she passed away in 2007 after seven years of suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. “The long goodbye,” Dick tells a friend.
Dick’s daughter, Kirsten, is a filmmaker, a documentarian whose first feature as director, Cameraperson, is one of the best from the last decade. In it, Kirsten captures her mother’s waning days on screen — a portrait that is both heartbreaking and human. Now, it’s Dick’s turn. A dreadful proposition, so Kirsten comes up with an antidote: Kill him. Over and over again; on camera, with stunt doubles, fake blood, deceptive camera angles and all the other tricks filmmakers use to make images appear real even when we know they aren’t.
It’s an unorthodox approach to grief, but Dick’s game. His psychiatric mind isn’t gone yet, and he’s just as curious as Kirsten to see where this will take them both emotionally. Plus, as Dick says, “I’ve always wanted to be in the movies.” Dick smiles when he says that. He smiles a lot. Dick loves life. He also loves chocolate fudge cake. On the day before his heart attack, Dick ate three slices of double chocolate fudge cake. You’d think a doctor would know better.
There’s something about surviving a deadly encounter that changes your approach to life. It’s like playing with house money. Dick survived his heart attack 30 years ago. It’s hard to say what kind of person he was before the attack, but I’d be willing to bet his unflappable optimism and joy stems from going to the brink and coming back. He still eats cake, by the way. What’s it going to do, kill him?
Besides, nothing wipes away tears like a good piece of cake. Yes, Dick Johnson Is Dead is sad, but not in the way that’ll wrench your heart and leave you feeling despondent. There’s a lot of joy here, mountains of it. So much that not even the cold, hard truth of reality can level it. Remember Sing Street from a few years ago? And the moment when the wanna-be pop musician discovers the secret to music that truly moves people: “Happy sad.” Few words could better describe Dick Johnson Is Dead.
That might sound like Dick and Kirsten aren’t taking his illness seriously. They are: There’s plenty of talk about looking at death and playing at death. But where others find helplessness, Dick and Kirsten find liberation. Because when you kill your father on camera, he doesn’t stay dead. All it takes is for someone to yell, “Cut!” and Dick rises from his coffin and becomes the resurrected dead. We should all be so lucky. Long live Dick Johnson.
ON THE BILL: Dick Johnson Is Dead premieres on Netflix on Oct. 2.