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The darkly funny and wildly imaginative Dick Johnson is Dead is a love letter from a daughter to a father, creatively blending fact and fiction to create a celebratory exploration of how movies give us the tools to grapple with life’s profundity.Netflix

  • Dick Johnson Is Dead
  • Directed by Kirsten Johnson
  • Classification PG; 89 minutes


3 out of 4 stars

Few directors, let alone documentarians, enjoy auspicious breakout moments as does Kirsten Johnson. A long-time cinematographer for mostly non-fiction films, Johnson deftly edited together a wealth of footage from her career on other people’s movies to craft her own feature-length directorial effort, 2016′s Cameraperson.

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Dick Johnson and some crew members behind the scenes on Dick Johnson is Dead.Kirsten Johnson/Netflix/Netflix

The resulting document – calling it a film would not be entirely accurate – instantly marked Johnson as an enigmatic, essential voice. But after mining her entire life up until that moment, what would be her follow-up? Easy: She would kill her father.

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Dick Johnson Is Dead does involve several scenes in which Kristen Johnson's real-life father suffers a grisly fate; all staged, and with her father’s full, gleeful participation.Netflix

Sort of. Johnson’s new work, Dick Johnson Is Dead, does indeed involve several scenes in which her real-life father, the retired psychiatrist of the title, suffers a grisly fate. But the moments – see Dick fall down the stairs, see Dick get impaled by a piece of wood, see Dick get crushed by an A/C unit – are all staged, and with her father’s full, gleeful participation. In imagining her father’s demise, Johnson is preparing for the inevitable. And by committing these tongue-in-cheek nightmares to film, she has created a peculiar but moving work of art.

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Dick Johnson and his daughter award-winning filmmaker Kirsten Johnson, on the set of Dick Johnson is Dead.Barbara Nitke/Netflix/Netflix

Not every fantastical element works as well as Johnson thinks. For instance: an effort to create the Heaven of Dick’s Seventh-day Adventist dreams uneasily walks the line between sincerity and mockery. But you’re unlikely to any time soon encounter a more thorough and energetic dive into the art of letting go. I look forward to Johnson’s next act, whilst I look over my shoulder.

Dick Johnson Is Dead is available to stream on Netflix starting Oct. 2

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