Review: 'Dick Johnson is Dead' a wonderful celebration of life

Netflix documentary confronts death head on

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

Kirsten Johnson is killing her father. 

Over and over she's doing it, in new and strange ways. She drops and air conditioner on his head, she has him stabbed with nails sticking out from a 4x4 carried by a construction worker on a busy sidewalk. And her dad goes along with it, because he knows she's trying to prepare for the day when his death is real, and she's forced to confront the inevitable. 

Dick Johnson in "Dick Johnson is Dead."

"Dick Johnson is Dead" is a stirring story that is full of life. It's a celebration of being alive and confronting death that aims to reconcile the feeling of loved ones being pulled from our lives, and what it's like going on without them. It's a cathartic, funny, touching journey about dying and appreciating those close to us while they're still here.

Filmmaker Kirsten Johnson ("Citizenfour") introduces her father, a former psychiatrist in his 80s, who's beginning to suffer from dementia. She proposes making a film about his death, and he says yes. From there she stages his death, its aftermath and his arrival in heaven, and even goes so far to stage his funeral, which he watches from afar.  

In addition to being a story about her father's death, "Dick Johnson is Dead" is also about the making-of that story, creating a fascinating, layered dynamic with several storytelling tricks up its sleeve. For a movie that's all there in the title, "Dick Johnson is Dead" is not without its surprises. 

Johnson handles the heavy subject matter with a deft touch, never turning melodramatic or going for easy, obvious heart string moments. She creates a loving tribute to her father and a bold affirmation of life. Long live Dick Johnson, and long live "Dick Johnson is Dead."


'Dick Johnson is Dead'


Rated PG-13: for thematic elements and macabre images

Running time: 89 minutes

On Netflix