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Another Version of the Truth December 11, 2009

Posted by monty in movies.
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Of all the adaptations of Stephen King’s work, there are five films regularly – and justifiably – singled out not as just great adaptations, but as great movies: Carrie, The Shining, Stand by Me, Misery, and The Shawshank Redemption.  For my money, though, I think you could easily add David Cronenberg’s 1983 version of The Dead Zone to that list.

One need look no further than the principal figures involved with the movie to get a sense of its quality.  You have Cronenberg, who had just come off Scanners and Videodrome (two of the creepiest, most imaginative films of the early 80’s), and who was just about to make The Fly and Dead Ringers (two of the creepiest, most imaginative films of the mid to late 80’s); screenwriter Jeffery Boam would go on to write The Lost Boys and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade; and Christopher Walken – long before he became a parody of himself – gives one of the most restrained, nuanced performances of his career as Johnny Smith, a man blessed, or cursed, with visions of the future.

At the start of the film, schoolteacher Johnny is happily involved with Sarah (played by Brooke Adams), one of his colleagues.  They giggle, engage in a little hallway PDA, and go on a date.  At the end of the evening, Sarah invites Johnny inside but Johnny, ever the gentleman, declines.  Driving home in the pouring rain, Johnny plows into a milk truck (one of the movie’s few bum notes), and flips his car.  He awakes from a coma five years later to discover that Sarah is married and – oh yeah – when he touches people’s hands he’ll occasionally get a flash of some future event in that person’s life (and it’s always bad – no one wins the lottery or gets a surprise promotion at work or finally scores with the hot Waffle House waitress).

The rest of the film is split in half.  In the first section, Johnny struggles to come to grips with his newfound ability.  He’s enlisted by Sheriff Bannerman (Tom Skerritt, in a cool little role) to solve a string of murders that have been taking place over the last few years (and get ready to cringe at one of the most grotesque death scenes in film history).  In the second section, Johnny meets Greg Stillson (played by a wonderfully messianic Martin Sheen), a Congressional candidate who’s not above playing hardball with the local newspaper to get a negative editorial retracted (it involves, as these things often do, photographs of the publisher in flagrante dilicto with a young lady – at which point one of the bad guys predictably points to a photo and says, “I think this one is my favorite”).  At a Stillson rally, Johnny shakes hands with the candidate and receives a flash of the future – Stillson as a presidential demagogue, about to wage nuclear war on the rest of the planet.

It’s at this point that Johnny finds some of these premonitions have, as he describes it, “something missing” – a dead zone.  In these instances, Johnny realizes that the future can still be changed, and now he has to decide how to keep his vision of President Stillson from becoming a reality.  This leads to a darkly funny climactic sequence that is brilliantly executed and, more importantly, 100% satisfying.  I’ve seen too many movies that have cruised through the first 85 minutes, only to blow it in the last five.  Here, Cronenberg wraps things up exactly as he should – it’s the perfect ending.

I don’t remember enough of King’s book to make a comparison, but one of the things I admire most about Cronenberg’s movie is that, yes, it’s a thriller, but it’s also a fairly potent exploration of some heavy moral and philosophical issues.  For instance, if you could have a hand in altering the future, what level of responsibility do you have?  At first, Johnny doesn’t want anything to do with Bannerman’s police investigation, but he changes his mind when he realizes that any future victims could be partially his fault.  Later, as he wrestles with his premonition of the maniacal President Stillson, Johnny approaches his Jewish doctor with a hypothetical scenario that’s usually tired and worn-out, but which works remarkably well in this context.  If, he asks the doctor, you had met Hitler in his youth and knew what he would ultimately become, what would you do?  The doctor’s response is terrific: “I’m a man of medicine. I’m expected to save lives and ease suffering. I love people. Therefore, I would have no choice but to kill the son of a bitch.”  The movie goes beyond typically Stephen Kingian, things-that-go-bump-in-the-nightisms to delve into some darker, deeper corners.

I think there are a variety of reasons why The Dead Zone isn’t remembered as fondly as some of its peers.  It doesn’t have the striking imagery of The Shining or Carrie; it’s not as overtly suspenseful as Misery; it’s not as proudly sentimental as Stand by Me or The Shawshank Redemption. Those aren’t flaws, though.  Cronenberg’s direction and pacing are as sure-handed as ever, and Walken’s performance – while not as flashy as Jack Nicholson’s in The Shining or Kathy Bates’ in Misery – is sensitive and believable.  The Dead Zone is suspenseful and compelling, and, as is usually the case with Cronenberg’s movies, shot through with a rich vein of dark humor.  It’s an understated and effective movie that deserves to be elevated to the top tier of Stephen King adaptations.

Read my other Stephen King reviews here:

Carrie, 1976 (11/14/09)

The Shining, 1980 (11/18/09)

Creepshow, 1982 (11/24/09)

Cujo, 1983 (11/30/09)

Up next: Christine (1983)

*****

Current listening:

The Seahorses – Do it Yourself (1997)

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