It’s a peculiarity of the human mind that we like to imagine the worst, if only to better prepare us for when it comes. “Dick Johnson Is Dead” turns that urge into a movie, and a most peculiar one at that: Beginning with the insistent title, it’s a docu-comedy about coming to grips with a parent’s mortality, made by a talented grown child who’s not ready to let go.
One of the first things we see is the elderly Dick Johnson get KO’ed by a falling air conditioner as he walks down the street; we’re not five minutes in and Dick Johnson is already dead. Not really, though; it’s a stunt death cooked up by his daughter, filmmaker Kirsten Johnson, with the amused participation of her elderly father. Another early scene has Dick trying out an open casket for size during the setup for a fake funeral; he settles in and has a nice little nap.
What’s going on here? Who’s hoaxing who? “Dick Johnson Is Dead” came about as Kirsten, a documentary cinematographer whose directorial debut, “Cameraperson” (2016), became a critically acclaimed award-winner, coped with her psychiatrist father’s failing memory and looming retirement. This involves moving the father from Seattle to New York to live with the daughter and her family, an upheaval that the daughter tries to soften by playing some movie games with death. The thesis, more or less, is this: If you kill off your father enough times on camera, will that make his eventual demise easier to take?
I think we all know the answer to that one, but Dick is an awfully good sport — “an open, accepting person, just what you want in a dad,” according to Kirsten — and the first two-thirds of “Dick Johnson Is Dead” are simultaneously endearing, very funny, and bizarre. Because the director has very little filmed footage of her mother’s long decline from Alzheimer’s — it’s as though she couldn’t bring herself to look — Johnson goes overboard this time, cooking up macabre scenarios even as she’s discussing with her father the indignities and inevitabilities of aging.
A lot of “Dick Johnson Is Dead” is a celebration of movie trickery — the stuntmen, the stage blood, the camera’s sleight-of-hand — and there’s a lovely vibe to the young crew as they gather around the affable elder Johnson, assisting him in his beheadings and construction-site accidents. It remains unspoken that one of the points of the exercise is that the father is still alive after every “death,” a re-appearing act that the daughter seems to want to will into reality. And who can blame her?
More than once, “Dick Johnson Is Dead” smudges the line separating the audacious and the tasteless, as in a recurrent sequence set in a sort of Busby Berkeley heaven, complete with dancers wearing cut-out faces of the young Dick and his wife. Not all Kirsten’s ideas work — indeed, the desperation behind them is part of the point — and as the movie skips ahead a year and Dick grows increasingly feeble, the games start to seem unkind, to her and to us. The conversations between the two become the drama, and the tenderness with which the movie observes a good man beginning to forget himself. If you’ve ever helped shepherd a parent or a grandparent in their final years, you may be better equipped to handle this movie’s gallows humor and to appreciate the care with which it separates the contradictory emotions felt by Kirsten and all grown children.
Last January, “Dick Johnson Is Dead” played the Sundance Film Festival, where it tickled and moved just about everyone who saw it. Now it comes to Netflix, where it stands to thoroughly discombobulate those stumbling upon it unaware. I won’t tell you how it ends but I will say that Mark Twain would probably give it a thumbs up. When is it time to let go? Only when you’ve run out of tricks to play.
DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD
Directed by Kirsten Johnson. Available on Netflix. 89 minutes. PG-13 (some thematic elements, macabre images).