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Review: The Dead Zone

[The following review contains MINOR SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!]

Does a film truly need to slavishly adhere to a traditional three-act structure? Judging by his adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone, David Cronenberg certainly doesn’t seem to think so. Whereas a conventional thriller would probably conclude shortly after the clairvoyant hero’s final showdown with the sadistic serial killer he’s been pursuing, the director of Videodrome and Naked Lunch has barely gotten halfway through the narrative by that point; before the end credits roll, the protagonist—mild-mannered schoolteacher turned reluctant psychic Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken, distilling his oft-parodied on-screen persona into a genuinely compelling portrait of trauma and vulnerability)—still has to reconnect with his estranged former fiancée, protect his young protégé from an emotionally abusive father, and thwart the political ambitions of a deranged megalomaniac (Martin Sheen, voraciously devouring scenery in an apparent effort to beat Walken to the punch).

That Cronenberg manages to fit an entire miniseries’ worth of material into a lean 105-minute running time is nothing short of miraculous. He accomplishes this by adopting a simple yet elegant episodic framework: each of the movie’s approximately eight acts (by my admittedly rough estimate) is relatively self-contained, featuring its own fully-developed conflict, climax, and character arc. Collectively, these interconnected subplots orbit one unifying thematic question: Can precognition be used for the benefit of mankind, or is the very existence of such supernatural abilities inherently harmful?

The result is a beautiful cinematic paradox, simultaneously epic in scale and economical in design. Cronenberg has more than earned his title as "The Master of Body Horror,” but The Dead Zone clearly demonstrates that this label is also quite reductive; he is, above all else, a ridiculously talented storyteller.

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