How do we confront the inevitability of death?

Without fail, everyone will ultimately succumb to their mortality, but when it’s staring you in the face, what is the best way of processing it?

More so, is there a way to best handle the looming death of a loved one?

Documentarian Kirsten Johnson tackles these questions head on in a strange, yet beautiful and uncompromising new film, Dick Johnson is Dead, which premiered on Netflix last weekend.

The feature is a wild variation from her normal work observing subjects from afar, blending intimate personal footage with fantastical hyper-reality to occasionally leave audiences questioning where the line between fiction and documentary really lies.

Filmed over the course of several years, Dick Johnson is Dead serves as a memoir to Johnson’s family as well as a portrait of a love between a daughter and her father, a recently retired Seattle psychiatrist who is moved to a small New York City apartment after being diagnosed with dementia.

Audiences are treated to this warm-hearted, jolly man in his best days and in his worst, allowing the viewer to feel the full emotional impact Kirsten feels as Dick’s memories slowly fade away from him.

Though there’s a plethora of figures in the 90-minute feature, there’s only one true character, Dick Johnson himself. Viewers watch him experience a cognitive recognition of his dementia that fades in and out and the simple joy that he personifies in his unvarnished smile radiates through the screen with a blinding glow.

It’s in his relationship with his daughter Kirsten that the documentary truly comes alive. The rapport that filmmaker and subject have are intertwined with genuine warmth that only comes from a paternal bond. Dick is only involved with the film project because of his daughter, and his enthusiastic participation throughout showcases the tender, emotional love they have for one another.

Kirsten herself becomes a character in the film in a much different way than filmmakers traditionally create for themselves. So often directors hide themselves inside their films through the eye of the camera lens – and Johnson does this to tremendous effect during showy, artistic moments – but it’s in her on-screen relationship with Dick that helps provide context.

The cinematographer-turned-director-turned-subject places herself along the side of the frame, always keeping the focus on Dick, as if everything in the world revolves around her father. It’s a caring reverence that helps endear the audience further to this genuine, affable gentleman.

Constant throughout the film is this meta-textual subplot where the Johnsons stage and film various death scenes for Dick, often with the help of stuntmen being hit by a car or falling down a flight of stairs. The director Johnson brings audiences behind the scenes as these sequences are staged – often in the middle of showing them happen – in order to keep up with an ever bending, twisting timeline.

One of Dick’s friends is overwhelmed by the strangeness that filming this feature creates, lamenting at one point that he has to “keep reminding myself that this is a movie.”

Somewhere along the way, Dick Johnson is Dead becomes a commentary on the filmmaking process, inserting the filmmaker herself into the storyline to describe how and why certain events are being included and further complicates in a richly unique way the strange marriage this film makes between fiction and documentary.

Sadly, 2020 is the perfect year for a documentary with this subject matter to arrive as the COVID-19 pandemic puts the frailty of the older population into the spotlight. While Dick Johnson is Dead would normally be on the shortlist for Oscar contention, the unusual circumstances surrounding this year’s selection process will likely guarantee Johnson’s first Academy Award nomination as a director after shooting Laura Poitras’s 2014 Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

In a larger sense, Dick Johnson is Dead preserves the filmmaker’s father for immortality on the screen as Dick’s essence shines brightly even as the light in his eyes begins to fade.

The subject matter may be heavily, but it’s treated with a light humor and shown with such care that what might feel morbid actually becomes celebratory, a rare feat for such heavy material.

A major contender for the year’s best documentary film, Dick Johnson is Dead deserves a wide audience prepared for its unusual premise and subject matter and Netflix serves as an ideal way for cinephiles to stream this wonderfully quirky film as soon as possible.

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