Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Director Spotlight #9.9: David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. August’s director is body horror auteur David Cronenberg.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the rote plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.

Grade: 85 (A-)

The Dead Zone shows David Cronenberg adapting someone else’s work for the first time in his career. Based on the hit novel by Stephen King, it comes at the height of the author’s popularity in a wave of adaptations of varying quality, from the sublime (Carrie, The Shining) to the silly (Cujo, Christine). Cronenberg’s obsessions aren’t in play to as great a degree, and while the film certainly fits under the horror genre, it doesn’t feature the same extreme, uncomfortable body horror of Cronenberg’s early work. But the film is still an effective chiller, and an important transitional work in Cronenberg’s career.

Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) is a young schoolteacher with a  promising life and a beautiful girlfriend (Brooke Adams of Days of Heaven fame) when he’s involved in a car accident that sends him in a coma for five years. When he wakes up, his girl is married, he’s stuck with a permanent limp, and, most notably, he has the ability to see into a person’s past, present, or future by touching them. Johnny becomes a shut-in, alienated from the town. The local sheriff (Tom Skerritt) asks for his help to catch a serial killer, but even after helping him Johnny remains a man without a purpose. One day, after shaking hands with Greg Stillson (a memorably nasty Martin Sheen), a powerful grassroots candidate for the U.S. Senate, Johnny sees a future where a President Stillson causes nuclear holocaust after striking Russia. Johnny, the only person who can change the future, takes action.

There’s a few key differences between Cronenberg’s early work and The Dead Zone. It’s an American production rather than a Canadian one, featuring mostly American actors for the first time. It’s his first time working with a major studio. It’s the only Cronenberg film after The Brood not scored by Howard Shore (Michael Kamen fills in rather nicely with his haunting score). It’s Cronenberg’s most character-driven film up to this point, with the narrative centering around Walken’s troubled Johnny Smith rather than metaphor (The Brood) or ideas (Videodrome, Shivers). Most notably, the horror here isn’t overtly body-oriented as it was in Cronenberg’s early films. The film shows a bit more of John Carpenter’s moody, eerie influence than an all-out surrealist bent by way of William S. Burroughs.

That’s not to say that the film is anonymous, however. Cronenberg brings the same chilly, neutral tone to King’s work that he had brought to his own, which nicely counterbalances King’s tendency to go overboard sometimes in his novels (which, by themselves, are largely underrated by most major book critics). Aside from some awkward rushing in the first act, Cronenberg is remarkably assured. The whole film has a hushed tone that perfectly suits Walken’s haunted protagonist. Cronenberg is wonderfully restrained here, and he proves himself both a talented director of suspense scenes (particularly in the climactic assassination attempt) and a master at creating eerie, iconic images, from Johnny approaching a serial killer’s victim under a gazebo to a scene where the serial killer commits suicide. It’s every bit as methodical, cold, and frightening as anything in Cronenberg’s filmography, exploiting the fragility of the human body where his past films exploited our discomfort with it. And someone has to give Cronenberg credit for his staging of Johnny’s visions- rather than just having us see flashbacks, he places Johnny in the midst of the action, highlighting both his power and his powerlessness to stop the inevitable.

Those visions bring a mood of dread that hangs throughout the film. It perfectly reflects the mindset of Walken’s Johnny Smith, as if Cronenberg got into the character’s head as much as Walken does (it’s some of the actor’s best work).  It’s an existential nightmare: he’s a person with nothing to live for, and whose very existence is haunted by death and disaster. He’s become a shell of a man, his mind transformed in the most horrifying way. It plays to an overlooked Cronenberg theme- the loss of control. He cannot control when these visions happen, and they have an adverse effect on his health. The transformation of the mind was already a major concern of Cronenberg’s, but here’s the first time it takes the tragic tone that would mark the best of Cronenberg’s 80s work. And when Johnny finally does find a purpose- to stop a false man of the people who believes he has visions from God (Ronald Reagan analogue, possibly?)- the consequences are that he’ll forever be viewed as crazy and doomed. It makes all the difference- King’s sense of justice comes through even after Walken fails, as Stillson ruins his own career and take his own life- but the tragedy is felt all the same.

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