The Dead Zone (1983)
Directed by David Cronenberg
Before Christopher Walken was a punchline, he was an actor, an Oscar winner in fact, and the strange way he looked and moved and spoke wasn’t just schtick—it was the moving and unsettling idiosyncrasy of a great performer. (Michael Shannon is his heir.) You get a great sense of how startling Walken can be as a star, of how unusual and unexpected his every choice is, from his turn in this early-career King adaptation, in which he plays a typically Kingian protagonist: a mild-mannered New England schoolteacher, which King once was, pushed into extreme circumstances.
After a car crash, Walken’s Johnny Smith wakes up from a five-year coma without his sweetheart (Brooke Adams)—who moved on and had a baby—but with a psychic superpower that allows him to see possible futures, pasts, people’s secrets, or whatever’s narratively expedient. The story is structured like the three best episodes of a television series played back-to-back: origin story, first big case, last big case. (In fact, USA adapted the novel into a series in 2002!)
The most striking is the last, in which Martin Sheen plays a populist, vaguely Trumpian third-party Senate candidate, whom Smith foresees becoming president and going nuclear—literally. Smith then becomes a hero who ostensibly acts like a villain, a political assassin. Not unlike Oswald (in King’s formation, anyway, in 11/22/63) or Judas (in Jesus Christ Superstar’s formulation, anyway), he’s history’s accidental savior, committing a seemingly dastardly but in-hindsight necessary deed. The difference with Smith is that he knows what he’s doing—and, as played so sincerely by Walken, he seriously struggles with it. Henry Stewart (April 29, 30, midnight at the IFC Center’s Stephen King series)