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The Scariest Thing at Sundance 2020? Movies About Dementia

The superb films ‘Dick Johnson Is Dead’ and ‘The Father’ are terrifying wake-up calls about a future we hope never arrives

I’m not really worried about dying, but I am terrified at the prospect of my parents’ passing. I’m lucky: I’m 45 years old and still have both my mom and dad, who remain in relatively good health after all this time. (Allow me a moment now to knock on some wood.) I have friends who lost their parents very young — that’s an anguish I cannot even begin to comprehend. But there’s also something anxiety-inducing about having your parents so long — it gives you more time to ponder what it will mean when they’re gone. I cannot fathom it, and I don’t want to try.

But maybe there are fates worse than death. Maybe we’ll have our parents for years to come, but not in the form that we’ve always known them. My parents’ parents are gone, but before they passed, my grandparents changed. Near the end, they were there, but not completely. I don’t know how my parents coped. Maybe they didn’t — maybe they just had to make the best of it.

Of all the unexpected trends at this year’s Sundance, perhaps the most surprising was the preponderance of movies about aging family members afflicted with dementia. I haven’t yet seen Relic (the Emily Mortimer horror movie) or Falling (Viggo Mortensen’s directorial debut), but I’d be surprised if they prove to be more affecting — or more terrifying and devastating — than the two films on the subject that I did catch. One’s a documentary, while the other is a feature film based on a play. But in both, an adult woman must come to terms with the fact that her beloved father’s mind is slipping… and that there’s no hope of recovery. It’s simply a question of just how bad it will get for these men. 

I see plenty of death in movies, but rarely has the prospect of a person’s passing bothered me as much as it did in Dick Johnson Is Dead and The Father. My sister has often joked that, rather than worrying about our parents going senile or becoming infirm, we should just take them out back and shoot them. After watching these two films, I think she may be onto something.

The documentary Dick Johnson Is Dead is from cinematographer Kirsten Johnson, who came up with a novel way to process the upsetting news that her father C. Richard Johnson had been diagnosed with dementia. For one thing, she’d turn on her camera and record their time together — hardly a difficult assignment because she considers him her best friend. But the other coping mechanism was much more extreme. Johnson convinced Dick to let her film fictional scenarios in which she kills him off. Incorporating stuntmen, special effects and, of course, Dick as the main character, she presents us with different possibilities of how he could die. Maybe he’s hit in the head by an air conditioner that falls from an apartment complex as he’s walking down the street. Maybe he’ll trip down the stairs to his doom. She and Dick know the Grim Reaper will come for him eventually — why not take some sting out of death by turning it into make-believe that you can control?

Dick Johnson Is Dead

This approach may strike some viewers as crass or inappropriate: How can you joke about something like dementia? But what makes Dick Johnson Is Dead such a fascinating experience is that, pretty soon, it becomes obvious that, although Dick is all-in for these fantasy sequences, Johnson isn’t really doing them for her dad. She’s doing them for herself, which she more or less admits at one point in the film. During her voiceover narration, Johnson muses on the fact that the hardest part of watching someone we love die is knowing how badly we will miss them. As much as we grieve for the dead, we’re really grieving for ourselves — for our loss. There’s something inherently, understandably selfish about grief — think what this will do to me once he’s gone — but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it articulated so well as in Dick Johnson Is Dead. The more Johnson stages these death scenes — and the more her loving pop is willing to play along — the more blatant and heartbreaking the filmmaker’s motivations are. She keeps killing off her dad because, in these staged sequences, she knows he will always come back to life. It’s a way for her to sidestep the real pain that’s most assuredly on the horizon.

The documentary’s title suggests that Dick died before the film premiered at Sundance, and in Dick Johnson Is Dead’s later sequences, we see how mentally impaired he’d become. Spanning years, the movie starts off by showing us a sharp-witted, kindly Dick — he’s about to retire from his lifelong work as a psychiatrist and move from Seattle to live with his daughter in New York — and by the end, we note how much slower he is. He’s there, but not there, and Johnson is alarmed about the possibility that one day she’s going to come home and he won’t recognize her — a scenario that seems worse than losing him. But, again, that’s a selfish worry: My own dad won’t know who I am. It would be bad enough to lose a parent — it might be even more crushing for them not to remember you.

That fear of a father’s confusion about who you are is also at the core of The Father, a structurally brilliant and emotionally overwhelming drama that stars Anthony Hopkins as Anthony, an older man living in London who is starting to become unmanageable. He scares away caretakers — he’s convinced they steal from him, although in reality he’s probably just misplaced certain objects — and his patient daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) is worried that he may need to go into a home. After all, she’ll be moving to Paris soon, and she’s afraid of what might happen if he’s left to his own devices.    

This is a tense situation, as you might imagine — one that many adults have experienced with their aging parents. But quickly thereafter, something strange happens. The less you know going into The Father the better, but let’s just say that what we perceived in that opening sequence may not be entirely accurate — in fact, what we’re watching might be Anthony’s version of events, or his unreliable memory of those events. As one scene leads to the next, there are inconsistencies. Different actors play the same character. A piece of information presented to us is later challenged by new information. The Father is filmed like a straightforward chamber drama, but pretty soon, we’re utterly lost. We’re in Anthony’s mind, and it’s horrifying.

Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins in The Father

The film is based on the hit play by Florian Zeller, drawing inspiration from his own grandmother who had dementia when he was a boy. “I wrote the play the way one has a dream — that is to say, unconscious of where I was going,” Zeller told The New York Times in 2016. “And it wasn’t until almost the end that I said to myself, ‘Ah, that’s what I was talking about, about senile dementia, about Alzheimer’s, about the moment when one loses one’s faculties, one’s sense of who one is.’”

In The Father, which Zeller directed, that terror is palpable — for Anthony and the audience since we’re all locked in the same state of unknowing. “I feel as if I’m losing all my leaves,” Anthony cries out, weeping, and it’s hard to think of a more striking image of what the end might feel like. One day, you’re a mighty oak — the next, you’re losing parts of yourself, each leaf being blown away by the wind. Watching The Father so soon after Dick Johnson Is Dead was a difficult déjà vu. Instead of Kirsten Johnson’s leaps into make-believe, Anne has to rely on a cheery disposition, but both women are essentially lying to themselves to hold back the anguish that’s coming one way or another. Those leaves aren’t ever going to grow back.

For the record, neither father is dead at the end of his movie. (Dick Johnson even came to Sundance.) But the title Dick Johnson Is Dead is still accurate — and it applies to both patriarchs. Johnson knows that the man who was her father is no longer with us — someone far diminished has replaced him. We never get to meet Anthony before dementia took hold of him, but this sometimes charming, sometimes infuriating, often tragic and confused man couldn’t possibly have been the father she grew up with. Both Anne and Johnson quiz their fathers about dates and specifics, hoping that they’ll remember — they’re only met with disappointment and their dads’ empty eyes. What we can see, and what these women will learn, is that their fathers are gone.

I have a colleague here at Sundance who, when he heard about the premise of Dick Johnson Is Dead, immediately balked. He had lost his own father recently, and he was sure he wasn’t ready for a movie like that. I can’t say I blame him. But the reason why I was intrigued to see these two films was that, deep down, I’m curious what it will be like for my parents to die — even though I’m far too scared to find out. 

What I guess I’m saying is that I was living vicariously through Dick Johnson Is Dead and The Father, letting a movie be a convenient buffer to dress-rehearsal those sure-to-be-painful emotions. In some ways, I’m just like Kirsten Johnson and Anne. I know the end is coming, but if I pretend hard enough, maybe I can wish it away. But the truth is, you can never fully prepare for that moment — as these movies argue, the best you can do is try to give your parents comfort before they finally take their leave. Only then will you find out if you have the necessary strength.