David Cronenberg’s ‘The Dead Zone’ has the usual characteristics that accompany his films; slow, character-driven narrative; intelligent use of story concepts and a keen sense of suspense. But the episodic, time-leaping narrative doesn’t feel like the sort of loose storytelling suitable for the concept behind the film. It features Christopher Walken as a second-sighter, a man who by touching the hand of a person with his own can see beyond the present and envision future tragedies or murders. The film develops his powers through episodes and encounters with certain people; after a car accident and five years in a coma, he wakes up to find his once true love has understandingly moved on. This leads to several emotionally intense scenes between the two, but he loves Sarah enough to not be angry or disapproving of her decision to move on with her life.
Though it is similar to Cronenberg’s style, it is also a somewhat mainstream turn for the director. Based on a Stephen King novel, it shows just how far Cronenberg refuses to bend his personal touch for the sake of mass audience appeal : not very much. Some viewers may find slow scenes of character development tiresome; but most, I think, would find the concept intriguing and the suspense enchanting.
Once Johnny rehabilitates, he sees the first hints of his powers through his Doctor, Sam Weizak. When he touches his hand, he’s able to view or re-live the doctor’s past, during a thriving war, filled with rolling tanks and fire and angst. Tonally, It seems wrong to make the first vision Johnny has as a massive set-piece; but, this is the first proof to Johnny and his Doctor, after Sam calls his mother, who he thinks has died, upon Johnny’s request, and discovers Johnny is right: she’s alive.
Johnny’s second-sight ability is exploited through the media. During a press conference, a bold man demands answers about Johnny’s abilities. He flies up to Johnny at his table, sits down and extends his hand, an experiment, though a little different than the one seen in Cronenberg’s earlier feature, Scanners, where a man’s head pops like a tomato. This reporter is told things he doesn’t want to hear: about his sister, about his past. He jumps down from the hot-seat angry: the joke isn’t funny, and Johnny, played with utter psychosis by Christopher Walken, is not laughing.
The set-design on The Dead Zone has an eerie, small-town tone to it that, if you’ve ever read Stephen King, feels like the adaption is not only of the words, but the feel as well of working-class terror.
Cronenberg doesn’t use the second sight as a narrative tool or a mechanism to throw the viewer off. He could very easily have mixed reality with prediction and created a much more mind-bending film; but instead, he makes a practical movie with emotional intelligence and scene after scene of brooding tenseness.