Death is still one of the greatest taboos. On the whole, we don’t talk about it simply because we fear it and for good reason—it will happen to each and every one of us and no one knows what follows. To ponder the oncoming death of a loved one is even more daunting; to capture that person’s decline on film is too much for most to bear. Which is why, a minute into this, the instance an air conditioner unit falls out of a window right onto Dick Johnson’s head on the sidewalk below like a 16-ton weight out of Monty Python is so jolting, no matter what the film’s title promises.
If you know exactly what Dick Johnson Is Dead is about before going into it, you might laugh out loud like I did at that moment. Or, it may take seconds until the subsequent reveal that it’s just a prank, that the director, Johnson’s daughter Kirsten, has fashioned the film as a way of coping with the inevitable: Octogenarian Dick, a retired, widowed psychologist, is slowing down and entering the December of his life. Throughout, Kirsten stages one fake death of her father after another, ranging from crude sight gags such as the A/C unit to more high-concept spectacles, sun as entering the gates of heaven, complete with costume changes, dance sequences and camera trickery—they often resemble something David Lynch would’ve made in a particularly jocular mood. Happily, for his daughter and for us, the affable Dick is game for seemingly anything (would your father agree to the process of installing an intricate apparatus that allows a considerable amount of fake blood to seemingly shoot out of his neck?)
Kirsten’s previous feature Cameraperson recalibrated the longtime cinematographer as an essayist on the order of Agnes Varda or Ross McElwee; here, she delves into even more personal, thornier territory, documenting the final years of her father’s life, facing and dissecting head-on what it means to inch closer to the end of life both for her subject and herself. The fake death sequences provide levity but also open up a dialogue between what we can imagine the act of dying and its aftermath to be like versus what actually happens, i.e. what we can’t possibly fully comprehend. Through this push-and-pull, death is rendered less taboo without becoming trivialized, but its mystery also remains intact and not fully reconcilable.
At the film’s tricky, decidedly meta-conclusion, Kirsten seems to finally, fully confront and elegize her father’s demise while further blurring the difference between what we perceive and what we’re actually witnessing. When the reveal comes, it’s a kicker on par with suddenly seeing an appliance crashing down from the sky right towards your own head. Grade: A-
(Dick Johnson Is Dead is streaming on Netflix.)