There are certain movies you know are good and you can just save them for whenever you want to watch a good movie. This is one, that I had seen many years ago and finally decided it was time to revisit. It has a lot going for it, a wonderful performance by a youngish Christopher Walken, the presence of the lovely Brooke Adams, and intelligent, somber direction by our good buddy David Cronenberg. So let's lay back and take it in!
We open with a nice credits sequence that lays out the setting of small-town Maine, as jagged black shapes slowly appear to form the title. Then we see Walken as John teaching a class, reading from Poe's The Raven, and assigning The Legend of Sleepy Hollow for next time. He goes and picks up Adams as Sarah and they go on ths roller coaster. They are the only ones on the roller coaster, in the middle of the afternoon, which is a little curious, but I figure it's one of those details from the novel whose explanation was cut during editing. John has a bit of a spell during their ride, which leaves him freaked out, but that's it. He takes Sarah home and she invites him in, saying he could spend the night, but he says "some things are worth waiting for." They have a romantic moment in the rain, and we learn that they are engaged to be married. Then John drives off into the night toward one of those all-too-common accidents in which a huge milk tanker is propelled several yards down a country road on its side.
We are then at the Weizak clinic as John wakes up. He can't believe he has no bandages and is soon informed that it's because he has been in a coma for five years! His parents are introduced. Oh and by the way, Sarah is now married to someone else. When a nurse comes in to attend to him, John abruptly grabs her hand and has visions of a child alone in a burning house. The film nicely handles this by showing John actually THERE in the burning room, then turning to the nurse and telling her to run home, as "there's still time." She saves her child, and John becomes somewhat of a local sensation. Soon he is proving his abilities to Doctor Weizak by telling him that his mother, thought long-dead, is actually still alive.
Sarah comes to visit, quite fetching with her new short haircut, and informs him that she also has a young son. She asks him about the press interest in him, and he recites a line from Sleepy Hollow that since Ichibod Crane and no debts, he was soon forgotten, saying "That's what I want." John agrees to give a press conference which only makes him out to be a freak in the eyes of the viewer, causing his mother at home to have a seizure and soon die! This guy's life just keeps getting better!
Which is a sentiment soon delivered by John himself as Tom Skerritt comes by as the local Sheriff, asking for John's help in locating the "Castle Rock Killer," who has been preying on young women while John was in his coma. The Sherriff refers to John's "blessing," which leads to an excellent speech by Walken in which he describes what a "blessing" his abilities have been, what with losing his intended and barely being able to walk, ending with a stinging "God's been a real sport to me." Nevertheless, as I'm sure you can guess, he soon agrees to help.
SPOILERS > > >
They take John to a newly-found body, where he holds the corpse's hand and gets a clear vision of the murder as it unfolds. Once again it is shot as though he is right there, and afterward, he says "I was right there, and I didn't do anything." Turns out the killer is the deputy, who was standing right--well now, where is he? He's run home to his mama, who defends her boy. John grabs her hand and says "You knew... and you didn't do anything," to which she responds that he's a devil sent from hell. They go upstairs and find the deputy's room, still decorated like a young boys' room. The deputy is in the bathroom, where he offs himself in what must go down as one of the more elaborate suicide methods in recorded history. Then his mother takes a shot at John while in the GREEN hallway, dying with her hand reaching out toward him.
Somewhere in here Sarah came over and she and John had a night of love before she went back to her husband and that was it. Kind of unusual and mature, wouldn't you say? These Maine people are so progressive. Anyway, soon after the whole murder incident we are to understand that John has become too much of a celebrity, and moves to his own house in a nearby city. We also soon learn that each of his spells makes him feel a little worse, breaks him down even more. His doctor comes to see him, and John shows him the pile of letters and packages sent to him, all people asking for his help in finding someone or knowing what happened. John can't bear to open the packages, yet can't bear to throw them out.
Now we're at the halfway mark and it's time to introduce the main action of the last half, Martin Sheen as politician Greg Stillson. He's introduced as the friend of a man who has a boy John is tutoring, with a good quickie expositional trick as the man sits down and expresses his opinion that Stillson is an evil man.
Soon after this we break our narrative focus, which has been primarily from John’s point of view, and see Stillson and his henchman rough up a newspaper columnist for writing unflattering coverage. WHY the sudden break from John’s point of view? I’ll give you five seconds. Ready? Because they have to let us, the audience, know that Stillson actually IS evil, and not rely on that one guy telling us. So that’s why this one, totally out-of-place scene. Immediately after we get right back to John’s point of view and don’t leave again.
Turns out they’re having a rally for Stillson right across the street from John’s house, and guess who is big in Stillson’s campaign? Why, it’s Sarah [and her husband]. After a good but somewhat unrelated element in which John sees that the kid he’s tutoring will die when a frozen lake he’s on cracks [giving Walken an electrifying delivery later of “The ICE! Is GONNA BREAK!”], John goes to the rally and shakes Stillson’s hand. Then he sees that Stillson is a madman who will make the decision to launch nukes—even though we are explicitly told that there would have been a diplomatic solution. John has his doctor in and asks him—if he somehow had the chance to kill Hitler and prevent the holocaust, would he? The doctor says that yes, he would. They also discuss how, with the boy, who would have drowned, there was a “dead zone” in John’s premonition. This, they surmise, represents the opportunity to change the future.
The ending wraps itself up with surprising directness. John gets a gun, and goes to hide out upstairs in the church where Stillson will speak the next day [ah, the days before serious security!] Stillson arrives, and wants Sarah and her baby up on stage with him to prove what a great guy he is. When John rises up with his rifle, Stillson grabs her baby and holds it in front of himself to prevent John from firing. A reporter in the front row gets several pictures of this. John gets shot by Stillson’s security. As he lays dying he grabs Stillson and gets a premonition—the image of Stillson using the baby as a human shield on the cover of a newsmagazine, Stillson shooting himself. Stillson goes out, and Sarah weeps over the dying John.
< < < SPOILERS END
Now, I recently watched John Carpenter’s Christine, and my main criticism there was that the screenwriter didn’t do a good enough job of sorting though the surplus of subplot and characters Stephen King novels usually have, and thus ended up with a giant nonsensical mess when trying to pare it down to two hours. Well, here is an example of that done right. The screenwriter was able to pare the story down to its essence and give it a resonant shape. Even though the film feels a little episodic, a little hindsight reveals that it’s all fairly thematically relevant. First, Sarah’s telling John not to go home the night of his accident could be considered in some way a premonition, which he later says he should have listened to—so it’s partly about the importance of paying heed to premonitions. Then, when John has his vision of the serial killer, he repeatedly says “I was right there—and I didn’t do anything,” which bears directly on his dilemma at the end of the film, which is if you have a chance to prevent a horrible occurrence, would you?...and the course of action he decides to take. One other thing to notice is that this film ends exactly like Cronenberg’s next film, The Fly: with a woman weeping over the dying form of her ex-boyfriend who finally succumbed to the effects of a tragic accident.
The film is very successful, and benefits greatly from a serious, somber tone that never reaches for the “awesomeness” that usually accompanies films in which a protagonist is granted new, superhuman powers. Instead, it treats John’s condition as a curse that physically weakens him, makes him feel like a freak, and causes many to ask him for help and answers he can’t give. So its tone is mostly tragic and this, working against what one has come to expect from both King and Cronenberg, really amplifies the sadness of the whole thing. Also working against type is Walken, in his “least Walken-esque performance,” as my friend says, and this too works to strengthen the character and heighten his emotion. Walken seems a tiny bit supernatural just as he is, and is usually bursting with explosive energy, so for him to reign himself in here creates the sense of a man with turbulent feelings raging just below the surface, which works for the story in all sorts of ways. The wintry settings and Cronenberg’s restrained direction all work all of a piece to deliver an unusually consistent work that leaves viewers with all sorts of ambiguities and a very consistent air of tragedy.
Yes, it’s a very good movie with good performances.