David Cronenberg’s 1983 film based on the Stephen King novel is something of an anomaly for Cronenberg and his leading man, Christopher Walken. Both director and star are iconoclasts who seldom traffic in the conventional. That’s not to say that the The Dead Zone, a film about a school teacher who awakens from a five-year coma and discovers he has psychic abilities, is boiler-plate—far from it. It’s just that when you compare The Dead Zone to Cronenberg’s previous films to that point (and pretty much all of Walken’s performances, well, ever), you can see where both actor and director are perhaps toning down their peculiarities for this particular film.
The upshot is that it all works like gangbusters. King’s linear narrative gave Cronenberg one of his best opportunities to showcase his storytelling skills while still adding his own distinctive touches.
When Walken’s “Johnny” gets into a car accident from which he doesn’t stir for half a decade, he finds his whole world has changed. He has no job, no home of his own, and most tragically, the woman he loves and was going to marry (the lovely Brooke Adams) is now married to another man and has a child. Life kept moving while Johnny was “asleep” for all that time. But for him, five years ago was only yesterday.
To make matters more complicated, when Johnny touches the hand of his nurse, he sees a vision of a small child in a burning house—the nurse’s burning house. He quickly shouts at her and convinces her to run home, where sure enough, her house is on fire. But thanks to Johnny’s vision, there was just enough time to save her daughter.
As word spreads of Johnny’s abilities, people come calling—looking for everything from lost dogs to a serial killer. A sense of responsibility drives Johnny to assist Tom Skerritt’s flinty sheriff with the latter, and as Johnny uncovers the killer, the chill of the Maine winter gets even colder. In someone else’s movie, maybe the serial killer subplot would become the crux of the movie. But not here. The film has bigger plans for Johnny, and for us.
As Johnny uses his newfound powers (which he can’t always control), he takes on a physical burden. The car accident left him with a badly damaged leg, but the visions bring on headaches, and the more visions he has, the more frequent his suffering.
Walken plays all of these struggles straight. While the actor’s unique pauses and his unsettling grin remain in effect here, on the whole his eccentricities are tamped down. Over his very long and admirable career, Walken hasn’t played a ton of leads, and when he has, they are almost never “regular guys.” John Smith (check the name) is a regular guy, and Walken is wonderful in the role.
Both he and Cronenberg have little interest in cheap sentimentality, so when Johnny has a stolen moment with his lost love and she confirms that moment will not come again, the hurt on Johnny’s face isn’t backed by maudlin strings or a soft-focus close up. It’s just Walken standing in the cold with Brooke Adams being thankful that she came to him, but now losing her all over again. The pain of this second loss registers subtly on Walken’s face and with just a little inflection in his voice. The affect is devastating.
Eventually, Johnny attempts to have a normal life. He becomes a tutor, gets his own place, and takes on an introverted boy for his wealthy father. Johnny and the young boy quickly build a bond. Neither feels at home in the world, but in each other, they find kindred spirits.
As his charge opens up, his father hopes to bring him out even more by having his classmates over to play hockey on a frozen lake. But Johnny sees that the young boy and his friends are going to break through the ice and sink to the bottom of the lake. He convinces the boy not to play, but his father carries on with the other children, and two die. While that event is tragic, what Johnny learns is that he can not only see the future, but he can change it.
Through the wealthy father he meets a senatorial candidate named Greg Stillson played by Martin Sheen. Stillson is foreshadowed in the front half of the movie by an in-progress political billboard supporting his campaign.
Sheen doesn’t even show up in the film until the film is well over an hour in. As Stillson, he is the most reprehensible kind of politician. One that appeals to people’s worst instincts and plays upon their fears. When Johnny touches Stillson, he sees into his future. Not only will Stillson become a Senator, he will reach the highest office in the land. And when he does, he will push the nuclear button.
Johnny now has a choice to make. What does he do with this information? It’s the age-old question: if you knew Hitler was going to turn out to be Hitler, would you not kill him? And so, Johnny decides to become an assassin. He sets up with a rifle at a Stillson political event. He takes aim at the stage, but Stillson’s bodyguard sees him before he can pull trigger. Johnny is shot, and his round goes awry. But Stillson panics, picks up a child and uses him as a human shield. Stillson survives the assassination attempt, but his political career is over. As he confronts a dying Johnny, they touch hands, and Johnny sees Stillson’s bleak future. He can then let go of his tortured life knowing he has saved the world.
It’s a lonely moment of recognition for a very lonely man. As the life flows out of his body, his true love comes to him. She doesn’t understand why Johnny made this choice. But he knows. And that will have to do.
It was fascinating to watch The Dead Zone through the prism of modern times. We live in an age where reason has been replaced by madness and truth traded out for lies—all while dealing with an actual plague and economic collapse. The Dead Zone may be nearly 40 years old, but it feels strikingly relevant.
I wonder how many people might view it now and consider Johnny’s position, what would our responsibility be? Would we change the future no matter the personal cost?
It’s a striking and dangerous theoretical.