Saturday, 20 September 2014

Alternate Best Actor 1983: Christopher Walken in The Dead Zone

Christopher Walken did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Johnny Smith in The Dead Zone.

The Dead Zone is a rather great film about a man who wakes from a coma with the ability to see into the future and the past.

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.

13 comments:

koook160 (Robert MacFarlane) said...

Is Stephen Lack going to be your go-to guy for bad lead performances from now on, or just Cronenberg leads?

Louis Morgan said...

Just Cronenberg leads.

koook160 (Robert MacFarlane) said...

You know he had a cameo in Dead Ringers, right?

GetDonaldSutherlandAnOscar said...

I've never seen this but I really want to now. Louis, who would you say are Walken's contemporaries?

Kevin said...

Where would this rank among Cronenberg films?

Michael McCarthy said...

I actually wasn't crazy about the first half of this film, it gave me a vibe similar to Gattaca in how underwritten it felt. But I thought Walken was consistently great, and absolutely loved the ending.

Anonymous said...

What are your ratings and thoughts on Genevieve Bujold in both Dead Ringers and Anne of The Thousand Days?

Anonymous said...

Ratings/thoughts on Judy Greer and Shailene Woodley in The Descendants. Also, if you've seen it, ratings and thoughts on the whole cast of The Fault in Our Stars.

koook160 (Robert MacFarlane) said...

I actually really liked Woodley in Fault. Laura Dern was really good too. The rest of the movie? Bleh.

Louis Morgan said...

Robert: How can one forget that cameo......well actually I did not find him horrendous there, more of forgettable, but he wasn't playing the lead.

GetDonaldSutherlandAnOscar: Bruce Dern is the first name that comes to mind.

Kevin: I'd rank it third behind Videodrome and The Fly.

Anonymous:

Bujold - Dead Ringers 4(Her role is limited in a certain way since she is always in the shadow of Irons's performance. I did feel she gave a fairly interesting reactive performance. She smartly kept her performance rather straight forward as a good counterpoint to Irons portrayal of the twins)

Anne of the Thousand Days - 3.5(This performance is a bit of a mixed bag for me. I think she has the needed command and chilling edge in the scenes where Anne is manipulating Henry, but I don't feel she creates a natural flow for her character. She'll become warmer in certain scenes, than particularly cold in others and although I don't think she portrays this different sides poorly I don't think she links them together especially well)

Haven't seen The Fault in Our Stars.

Woodley - 2(I thought she was actually pretty bad in this. The performance always seemed obvious in that you could always see the performance. Her line delivery never felt natural and her whole performance seemed off. Also neither the film nor her performance could really decide whether she be the passive aggressive rebellious daughter or a warm supportive one, or at least some cohesive middle between the two points)

Greer - 3(I thought she did a fairly natural job in her first scenes where she just being the proper sociable mother. Her final scene had a certain effectiveness even though I do think she overplayed it a tad too much)

Matt Mustin said...

You didn't ask me, but this would be my ratings on the TFIOS cast, some are subject to change.

Woodley-5
Elgort-3.5
Dern-4
Tramell-3
Wolff-3
Dafoe-4

Anonymous said...

@Matt Mustin: Thanks for giving your thoughts on TFIOS cast, and we actually agree with some of the ratings! Woodley is amazing and she would be a 5 for me as well, and Elgort was good but there are some moments where is acting feels a bit awkwars, and I would give him a 3.5 too. I also agree on Dern's rating as she was very touching in a small role. Tramell would be either a 2.5 or a 3 for me, he was good but the role is a bit limited. I certainly would give less to Wolff who was annoying in my opinion and maybe I'd give less to Dafoe even if he did make an impact in his couple of scenes.

koook160 (Robert MacFarlane) said...

My ratings for TFIOS cast:

Woodley: 4.5
Elgort: 2
Dern: 4.5
Tramell: 3
Wolff: 3.5
Dafoe: 2.5