David Cronenberg is one of the most important directors of the last few decades. His thrilling, provocative films have caused audiences’ collective brows to furrow on more than one occasion. From Videodrome to his more recent A Dangerous Method, he often explores that dark line between sexual fantasy and gruesome violence. In The Dead Zone, his adaptation of the great Stephen King novel, he presents one of his more traditional narratives. The movie is not a typical horror film, and it’s also not a typical suspense thriller. The film, starring Christopher Walken in one of his best performances, is almost genre-less; it’s simply a story based in realism with supernatural elements.
And it’s one great film.
For those unfamiliar with King’s text, the story follows Johnny Smith after he wakes from a multi-year coma. Before the coma, he was living a great life, in the throes of a summer love. After the coma, he finds that his love interest, Sarah Bracknell (Brooke Adams), has moved on with her life, and he’s left by himself.
Then the psychic powers come into play. As Johnny starts finding himself again, the local area is plagued by a series of murders. Johnny somehow knows something about the killer. His visions turn dark, seemingly precipitated by touch. After he shakes hands with people, he can see their future. This unbelievable power makes him a pseudo-detective helping out the always questioning local sheriff (Tom Skerritt).
There’s also a political subplot involving Martin Sheen as a up-and-coming congressional leader, and how all of these elements fit together is a credit to King’s original story and Cronenberg’s deft directing hand.
The film has a washed-out feel, almost sanitized, as if we were watching the events unfold in slow motion. By slowing down the narrative, Cronenberg places the emphasis on Johnny and his continued recovery. This is not a shoot ’em up thriller with unrelenting action and dazzling special effects. This is not a horror film with the usual things that bump in the night. This is a story about a man trying to find his place in a new world, trying to figure out how his new “talent” can be of use in a society he no longer recognizes or even likes.
Walken’s performance anchors the film, and it’s a powerhouse role for the fine actor. He seems to let the fury over what happened to him bottle up, always playing the passive-aggressive role and not trying to fight for self-respect. However, every so often, Johnny can’t hold in his frustrations, and he unleashes anger to the point where his loved ones start to wonder about his fractured mind. It’s obvious that the coma and the car accident took something away from Johnny, something that is now unretrievable. It’s Walken’s performance that makes us believe in this brokenness.
Jeffrey Boam’s script is a fairly faithful adaptation of King’s novel, although everyone other than Johnny is treated in fairly broad strokes. There could have been more subtext on the pivotal Sarah Bracknell character. This is the object of Johnny’s affection, and yet there’s not much learned about her in the narrative. Skerritt’s role, on the other hand, seems somewhat enhanced and gains new power in the film.
Cronenberg is an acquired cinematic taste, but The Dead Zone is easily one of his most accessible films. It will delight fans of his work and newbies looking for one of those great oddball King stories.
By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com
The Dead Zone
Directed by David Cronenberg
Written by Jeffrey Boam
Starring Christopher Walken, Brooke Adams, Martin Sheen and Tom Skerritt
Running time: 105 minutes