Friday, June 17, 2011

The Dead Zone (1983)

Christopher Walken as a less kind, less gentle Johnny Smith

 Despite my love for the works of David Cronenberg, for a long time 1983's The Dead Zone didn't really register on my radar.  I'd seen it when I was a kid, and had it filed away in my brain under "above average Stephen King adaptations."  Given the vast quantity of films based on King's work, that's a file that doesn't exactly beg for reevaluation.   But Cronenberg is a director, like Stanley Kubrick before him, who excels at the peculiar skill of telling other people's stories in a way that enhances rather than diminishes his own authorial voice.  (Indeed, of the twelve films Cronenberg has made from The Dead Zone through next year's Cosmopolis, only two are based on original screenplays.) And so, far from being just another Stephen King adaptation, The Dead Zone is an essential step in Cronenberg's filmography that sheds light on the obsessions and perspectives that propel his work.

The story is enough a part of our popular culture to have merited a Simpsons' parody, so a lengthy plot summary is perhaps redundant.  Christopher Walken plays Johnny Smith, an unassuming schoolteacher who enters a coma after a near-fatal car accident.  When he recovers he finds that he is now blessed (or cursed) with clairvoyant abilities.  Although his first response is to play the hermit, hiding from the world and his new-found talents, eventually a nightmarish vision propels him to try to change the future.

Brooke Adams and Walken in happier times, before the accident

At first blush The Dead Zone seems to stand out as being a very different sort of story than those Cronenberg was telling at the time.  The 1980's were the years in which he pushed his "body-horror" style of film to its furthest polar extremes:  the grand guignol carnality of The Fly and the chilly clinicism of Dead Ringers.  Compared to the extreme levels of discomfort and unquiet Cronenberg solicits in those films (to say nothing of the sado-masochistic masterpiece Videodrome, released a mere eight months prior to this film), The Dead Zone seems to be a far more conventional, even safe, movie.  This safety, however, is merely a mask, the camouflage behind which Cronenberg hides the fact that he is continuing to chip away at one of the most central myths of Western culture.

There is perhaps no greater dissonance in modernity, then that between what our sciences tell us about personality and identity and the stories we tell about our "selves."  Despite the fact that it's been long abandoned by scientists and philosophers alike, the Descartian dualism of mind and body persists in our thinking.  Many religious people embrace the concept of the "soul" of course, but even atheists and agnostics often embrace the idea of an "I", a self, that is somehow independent of the meat and bone that carries it around.  Nobody wants to look too closely at the fact that all our dreams, our nobility, our passions, our very sense of who we are is nothing more than the squelching of chemicals, the rattling noise of atoms chaotically colliding without design.  Virtually nobody, anyway.

Although The Dead Zone is never explicit about the mechanism of Johnny's new abilities, there's definitely nothing spiritual at work here -- no god or demon has reached beyond the veil to gift this sight to Mr. Smith.  The car accident that put him in a coma and cost him five years simply damaged his brain.  Whether it's a tumor, a clot, or tissue damage is irrelevant -- the fact is that the "Johnny Smith" that got in his car that night is not the same "Johnny Smith" that awoke in a hospital bed five years later.  And the clairvoyance is only the most telling change.  Cronenberg, with a light and subtle hand, makes it clear that he has changed in more fundamental ways than he even recognizes: following the accident Johnny dresses more severely, wears his hair differently, and holds himself with a different posture.  He talks with a different cadence, has difficultly relating to those around him, and no longer adheres to the religion that, at film's beginning, had him rejecting the amorous advances of his girlfriend.  The transformative power of physical corruption is no less horrifying here for it being reflected in the psychological rather than the physiological, as any one who has watched a loved one deal with a disease such as Alzheimer's will surely agree.

Smith's clairvoyant visions are like seizures in their physical manifestation

Christopher Walken is like the platonic ideal of the 1980's Cronenberg hero.  Like James Woods before him, and Jeff Goldblum and John Malkovich after him, Walken is an actor who possesses genuine "movie-star" charisma that never quite hides the reptilian qualities to his manner.  This is perhaps a necessary qualification to play these roles that compel audiences to watch in both horror and sympathy as what makes these men recognizably, socially human is stripped away.  Cronenberg has said of his films of this era that in making them he "related to the disease."  Thus, there's something of the romanticized outsider in Cronenberg's post-humans and homo sapiens in extremis.   It's hard to miss the fact, after all, that the visible aspects of Walken's post-coma transformation make him look like noone so much as Cronenberg himself.

Although Walken dominates the proceedings, Cronenberg stocked the cast with ringers who all acquit themselves well.  Brooke Adams (Days of Heaven) as Johnny's girlfriend Sarah is tasked with being the film's emotional anchor; she compellingly suggests her character's mixed emotional reaction to Johnny's return and difficulties relating to him after the fact.  The always welcome Herbert Lom (A Shot in the Dark) plays Johnny's physician, Dr. Weizak, as the man who diagnoses the nature of Johnny's new abilities.  His character is essentially a cypher, a construct that serves the purpose of grounding Johnny's clairvoyance in reason and physiology rather than spirituality, but Lom is game and ensures these scenes are consistently engrossing.

Martin Sheen as Greg Stillson: Do not vote for this man
Martin Sheen plays Greg Stillson, a right-wing extremist third-party candidate whose terrifying political future is the catalyst for Johnny's final transformation.  Watching this performance today it's impossible not to compare Sheen's performance as Stillson to his role as President Bartlet in The West Wing.  If Bartlet is the idealization of American democracy in human form, the embodiment of our best dreams about our political system, Stillson is the manifestation of our worst post-Watergate nightmares.  It's hard to say what is more terrifying about Stillson's particular madness:  the lengths to which he will go or the fact that the national spotlight is unable to illuminate it.  If Stillson's psychopathy is invisible until it's too late, despite the eyes of the nation being upon him, how do we trust in the stability, the recognizably "human," in anyone?

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