From the Film Vault: “The Dead Zone”

by Dean Duncan

There’s a brief, even glancing bit of gross-out in this David Cronenberg/Steven King semi-collaboration. They’re both specialists in that regard, or at least were specialists at1 that point in their careers. But beyond the fact that Colleen Dewhurst, beloved by millions for her performance as Marilla Cuthbert in the CBC’s 1985 production of Anne of Green Gables, and also twice married to the great George C. Scott, opposite whom she acted in Wm. Peter Blatty’s 1990 film The Exorcist III (which is actually pretty good), in which she actually plays the Devil, or at least the Devil’s voice, even though it’s Jason Miller (Father Karras) whom we see in the shot—

Hey! What was I saying? Oh, Colleen Dewhurst is indirectly involved in or with this gross-out moment, which is actually one of the less interesting and effective things here. The only competition for least interesting is Martin Sheen’s straw man political bad guy, or maybe the inversion of Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” that they come up with in order to get rid of him, unless it’s the crazy implausibility of all that tons of shooting, at a political rally, without a single law enforcement officer to be seen—

Wait! What was I saying? Oh, Cronenberg and King, and there are some nods to early/mid-80s generic conventions, and the probably expectations of the audience. But martin-sheen-the-dead-zone-movie-presidents-who-would-probably-be-worse-than-donald-trumpmostly, how unexpected, and how impressive! This version of The Dead Zone features a number of very impressive instances of basic, well-observed, kindly character interaction. The Johnny/Sarah situation is a case in point. It could have ended up a crass anti-chastity contrivance. As it is, because it’s played so delicately and respectfully, it attains a remarkable moral heft and emotional amplitude. There are deep feelings, and natural desire, and seemly continence, and then unexpected tragedy. Out of all that, really sorrow! And, cf. Henry King’s Stanley and Livingston, Welles’  adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons, films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the fact that mature people make sacrifices and, in doing so, sometimes experience terrible loss.

Up to this point Cronenberg had been a clever genre proponent/genre revisionist, an often reckless provocateur whose work could split the difference between promising insight, and promising to make you barf. It’s here, mostly, where he starts to raise his sights, to remain genre-true at the same time that he reached for and eventually, often accomplished greater heft and resonance. Greater attention to performers and performances were instrumental in allowing him to make that refining that change. Christopher Walken’s work here is emblematic of this strategy, and its great dividends.

He is some actor! And this is some character. Gentle, haunted, fearful, pitiable. It really is awfully too bad that hardly anyone ever saw or exploited these qualities in him. That’s a successful career, by any measure. But I think he had more, and different, to give us! Note also the subtle, autumnally affectionate interactions between the Johnny and Herbert Lom characters. Note also, finally, that southern Ontario appears to be about the least hospitable or appealing place in which a person could ever possibly live! Until Jonathan Glazer shot Under the Skin in Glasgow. Which is actually unfair, because Glasgow is a lovely place, which I should know, having gotten my PhD there—

Wait…

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