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Dick Johnson is Dead: Netflix tackles death and dementia

The premise to Netflix’s new film, Dick Johnson is Dead, is simple. Documentarian Kirsten Johnson’s father, the eponymous Dick, is diagnosed with dementia, so to work through the grief, loss and impending death, she decides to chronicle the last few years of his life all the while staging her father’s death over and over again in an elaborate series of violent accidents all punctuated by fantasy scenes in heaven.

Okay, it really isn’t simple.

“Just the idea that I might ever lose this man is just too much to bear, he’s my dad,” Johnson says in her opening narration.

“But now it’s upon us, the beginning of his disappearance, and we’re not accepting it.”

Cut to Dick, smiling, walking down the street with not a care in the world and an air-conditioner falling form the heavens smashing down on his head leaving him crumpled and bloody. That’s death number one.

In the next scene we’re confronted by Dick’s pretend funeral, replete with well-wishers and coffin, which he is helped into as the crew then film him playing dead.

“Is it cosy in there?” Kirsten asks.

“Nobody cares about comfort now,” Dick quips, as he relaxes into his fake afterlife. The Johnson’s seem to be going through the stages of grief on camera, they joke with each other, seemingly in periods of denial. The onlookers, Dick’s real friends, deal with the grief differently.

“It is so weird to see your buddy in a coffin. This is not good for me. But this is a movie and I have to keep reminding myself,” one friend says as he watches the filmmakers cross Dick’s hands in the coffin.

Kirsten puts an arm around the man, who is clearly distressed.

“A resurrection,” Dick shouts as he is helped out of his coffin, to laughs from the crew. The film is full of dark comedy and gallows humour.

The film is jarring early on. Dick’s next death – he falls down the stairs – is when we start to get an insight into why this movie is happening, why working through dementia and death is important to them both. Dick’s wife, Kirsten’s mother, died in 2007 after a seven-year struggle with Alzheimer’s. She died on those same stairs. 

Old footage of Kirsten and her mother chatting, as she is in the latter stages of Alzheimer’s, nearly unable to walk and struggling with memory, cuts the levity and the scene that follows is the day Dick and Kirsten pack up his house as he prepares to move in with her.

Dick used to be a psychologist and his condition went largely unnoticed by Kirsten and her brother; it wasn’t until his secretary found him double booking patients that the alarm was raised.

We see the moment Kirsten takes Dick’s car away and he mourns the loss of his independence, his old life. The viewer is living every moment they go through and for people who have never had this experience, it can be uncomfortable.

Each shocking death that Kirsten puts her father through, and each sad milestone we see, is salved by a laugh or a touching moment between the two. The film is as much about their close relationship, as it is about death.

Dick is the epitome of good humour. He laughs his way through the film, rarely angry at a request to contort his “lifeless” body this way or the other. And Kirsten is patient, doting, but never condescending.

Dick paints a vivid picture of someone with dementia for the uninitiated, he is the star of a movie. He lives well, loves his grandkids, and loves chocolate cake – a recurring joke as we learn he nearly died of a heart attack in the 80s after he ate three slices of chocolate fudge cake the day before.

“How sweet it is,” he often says throughout. When asked would he want to die if his condition worsens, he replied “I love life too much for that”.

It feels at times that these “deaths”, these contrived skits, are distractions from the elephant in the room, a way to put off the real impending death. By looking at them through a lens, Kirsten is able to distance herself from the real death. But as the film moves on, and Dick’s condition worsens, they become less frequent and Kirsten becomes more emotionally in touch with the idea of losing her dad.

“I couldn’t stop thinking about what’s coming. His moments of forgetfulness are going to spread,” Kirsten narrates over a scene where Dick scores poorly on a memory test.

“He’ll ask the same questions over and over again. His eyes will get that distant look and his personality will begin to fade away. And he won’t be able to follow what I’m saying so I won’t be able to ask him for any more advice. And the whole time we will just be trying to get by.”

This film asks us to talk about loss and confront it head on, don’t ignore it, don’t be angry at it, accept it and as we understand more, life will be easier.

The issues facing the older community in Australia are well worn. Ageism is one reason we give to intellectualise the ill treatment of old people, but another reason could be that they remind us of frailty, of loss of memory and death, and it’s easier to look away than face our own mortality.

“I work on this theory,” Kirsten tells the Guardian, “that even when a film is incredibly powerful emotionally, like Anthony Hopkins in The Father, we know that he doesn’t really have dementia. That’s a relief to us. We don’t have to face the same thing that we face when we watch Dick Johnson Is Dead. The audience walks out of the theatre knowing that this dementia is eating my father alive. We value the thing that protects us from our own fear, and we wish to turn away from the thing that encourages us to face our fears.”

This film isn’t simple because it’s an unusual topic for a large entertainment platform like Netflix to tackle. Both death and dementia are taboo in modern society, still, and the idea that at least some of Netflix’s 182.8 million subscribers worldwide might see the film and have conversations with friends and loved ones, breaking these taboos, could make life a bit simpler for us all.

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