I've covered Christopher Walken for his memorable supporting performances before, but this is the first time I've looked at him in the leading role. The Dead Zone is yet another film by David Cronenberg who made some fairly weird films in the 80's and Walken seems like a fit who is often described as having a somewhat off-beat screen presence. Well the funny thing is here is this is probably David Cronenberg's least odd film from the 80's, despite the psychic aspect, and Walken actually plays a particularly normal guy here. Johnny Smith, which is a particularly simple name, is just a pretty average high school English teacher. One up from that though he seems to be in general just an all around decent guy. Walken in the earliest scenes has a very nice understated charm in the role. In terms of Johnny's romance with his fellow teacher Sarah (Brooke Adams) Walken brings such a nice sweetness to the part, and even though there are only a couple of scenes he makes Johnny a very likable guy who you care about before he gets into his unfortunate automobile accident.
The accident puts Johnny into a coma which he stays in for five years. The film is very effective in the scene where he awakens as it plays it in such a straight forward fashion as it simply shows Johnny needing to deal with the results of having been gone from the world for so long. Walken is incredibly moving in the first scene where Johnny comes out of the coma. Walken is so good in portraying the physical problems of the situation as he portrays Johnny very weakened state in a way that never feels fashioned but rather wholly honest. Walken is great though in bringing such an authenticity to when Johnny is visited by his family who unfortunately must inform him that Sarah moved on and got married to someone else. Walken is heartbreaking showing so quietly the devastation as Johnny hears this unfortunate news. Walken's performance is terrific here because he so bluntly just brings to life the hear break of this man, and absolutely makes Johnny such a man one can empathize with.
The film takes a sudden turn though when Johnny accidentally finds out he has psychic powers that are able to tell him the past or the future in regards to someone simply by touching them. Walken is fantastic in these scenes which are quite tricky as it would be easy to make them seem rather silly. Walken always manages to give them the needed gravity to the power. Walken firstly doesn't overact the physical reaction making it seem as something of a nervous twitch, I mean just compare his manner here compared to say the way Stephen Lack's manner in Scanners. Walken makes it seem real and never acts as though he is in a science fiction type film. He treats it as if it were The Deer Hunter. This can be seen with even further in the early moments of using his power. Walken brings such an intensity of emotions as he creates the visions as something truly forceful. Walken does not simply show Johnny as seeing the things he sees but rather completely feeling what is going on.
What is so special though is it is not as if Walken just makes Johnny become his power. Walken never forgets the man, and incredible how well Walken realizes the emotional complexity of the man's situation. He's exceptionally good in really bringing the life the positive moments of Johnny life such as when he is actually visited by his old girlfriend. It's very quiet but Walken realizes these moments of happiness so wonderfully. They are just the right amount of tenderness with the fairly frigid atmosphere that the film exists in. Walken is completely convincing in showing just how in love Johnny is with Sarah, and even overcomes the fact that Adams doesn't really give a particularly special of a performance. The way Walken gets that across though makes a later scene, where Johnny inadvertently meets the man she forget him for as well as had a child with, absolutely harrowing. It's such a powerful moment for Walken and one that he competently earns through his performance.
The story is technically fairly episodic, but I never saw this as a problem with the film because Walken just simply keeps it together. Walken's very effective in portraying the slow degradation of Johnny throughout the story because of his visions. Walken delicately portrays this pain in Johnny as he seems to become a more and more haunted man as though every vision seems to leave something in him while taking part of his life away. Really what is so good about this performance is everything about it. There is not a single reaction wasted by Walken here. Walken gives every emotional reaction he has a certain power or poignancy. It's fascinating how never does the moment where Johnny has the vision seems the same. It's different fitting how a normal guy would react to the very different horrors he sees. Even a very short moment such as when Johnny sees the mother of serial killer knew her son's actions, Walken makes his reaction stand out by how genuine it feels.
This is a particularly interesting performance by Christopher Walken, and one that shows just how talented he really is as Johnny just isn't that complex a character. That never matters, and he never feels less than he should be because of Walken's performance. I have never seen Christopher Walken fail with a challenging part. It never seems as though Johnny isn't complex enough or is somehow boring because of his simple nature. Firstly Walken brings the needed low key charm for the part, and succeeds in making Johnny someone we want to succeed. What Walken also does is take the idea of an average guy with this strange ability and makes that real as well. This is a challenging role in a most unique way as it is fairly easy to see how this part could have gone off the wall in terms of the psychic scenes, and on paper there isn't that much t this John Smith. The name is basically a blank slate and that's all he may have been, but Christopher Walken gives a fantastic portrait of pure emotional honesty.