The Dead Zone (1983)

Christopher Walken reads The Raven to his classroom, "Pretty good, huh," following "Nevermore" as the capper. The material is not Poe but Stephen King, good enough for David Cronenberg to unveil a new beginning following the Videodrome culmination -- the transgressor going "mainstream" with no neutered compromises, only a deepened humanism. Walken is Ichabod Crane, basically, a reticent soul surrounded by the snow of New England, hit with a blessing-curse after an encounter with an 18-wheeler; then a coma for five years, time enough for a fiancée (Brooke Adams), job, and the sturdiness of life to slip through his fingers. He grabs a nurse's arm, and infernal visions smack him: "The house is burning!" Doctor Herbert Lom is skeptical of premonitions, until the patient recalls a holocaustic past by only touching him, afterwards declaring Walken's spells "a very new human ability... or a very old one." Sheriff Tom Skerritt, stumped on a murderer search, consults Walken, who wishes to be left alone, but superpowers come with responsibilities, as it's said of superheroes. The sense of tragedy stems from the thoroughly lifesized, nonsuper nature of the hero, whose unchaining of repressed forces brings no dismayed liberation, as often for Cronenberg, but a deathly impotence, eaten away by the same new sight that's filling his closet with request mail. Walken's vulnerable singularity is a splendid sample of the filmmaker's handle on actors, noted also in the malefic ebullience of Martin Sheen as a politician skyrocketing towards Washington and, it is predicted, nuclear armageddon. The film furnishes prophecies of its own in envisioning an ingrown despot sending the missiles off with a hearty "hallelujah," though Cronenberg's tract is first and foremost an authorial one on the medium itself, the helpless creator of images managing to act upon them in order to change history and, with it, his soul. A double-bill with a Bergman, Winter Light possibly, and the spiritual intimations of the Master of the Flesh spring forward. With Anthony Zerbe, Colleen Dewhurst, Nicholas Campbell, Jackie Burroughs, and Sean Sullivan.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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