Written and directed by Richard Linklater, A Scanner Darkly is adapted from the cautionary drug novel by science-fiction writer Phillip K. Dick, who based the story loosely on his own experiences and those of his friends, many of whom died or suffered permanent physical and psychological damage from their drug use. The film can be seen as the flip side of Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, where getting drunk and getting high were a normal, basically harmless part of growing up. Here, with all the central characters in their mid-thirties to early forties, we see what happens when the drug use extends well into adulthood, by which point a simple toke or the occasional snort just doesn’t cut it. In addition to pot, coke, and whatever else happens to be around, the characters take a fictional drug called Substance D (also known simply as “Death”) by the handful and live in a constant state of paranoia, always aware that there could be a narc in their midst, as indeed there is.
Keanu Reeves plays Bob Arctor, a semi-employed addict who spends much of his ample free time sitting on the couch listening to his even druggier roommates, Jim Barris and Ernie Luckman (the perfectly cast Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson) spin wild, incoherent conspiracy theories. Reeves also plays “Fred,” an undercover narcotics cop trying to work his way up the ladder from small-time pushers to the big distributors. Bob and Fred are not two different characters; they’re merely aspects of the same person, but increasing abuse of Substance D has altered the chemistry of his brain, progressively separating the two personas into separate, autonomous personalities. To add insult to injury, Bob’s girlfriend Donna (Winona Ryder) won’t put out.
Arctor is a cipher, a mystery even to himself. It’s a fitting role for Reeves, whose uninflected surfer-boy diction lends itself naturally to a character too stoned to care much that the hemispheres of his brain have decided to go their separate ways. Reeves’ clench-jawed voiceovers inevitably recall those of Harrison Ford in the original theatrical cut of Blade Runner, also adapted from a Dick novel, but they also capture the woozy ennui of the longtime addict. Downey, Harrelson, and Rory Cochrane, who plays their friend Charles Freck, are the inverse of Reeves: manic, scheming, occasionally violent, full of pointless energy and misdirected creativity.
The title refers to cameras the police have placed all over Arctor’s house, which capture all the goings-on there for Fred’s later review, as he gradually becomes oblivious that he’s seen these events once already. In the film’s bleak near-future, addiction and surveillance are the only constants. No amount of paranoia is excessive, and even the addicts’ most outlandish conspiracy theories may turn out to be true.
The film creates its own mesmerizing reality that can at times be stunningly beautiful. The rotoscope animation process it uses, an elaboration on the technique introduced in Linklater’s Waking Life, offers the best onscreen simulation of the surreal dislocations and skewed sense of time of a drug experience that I’ve seen since the casino lounge scene in Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Its disjointed, constantly shifting perspectives are an unusually apt cinematic equivalent to the highly subjective perceptions of someone who is truly, deeply fucked-up, and it has the additional effect of heightening the actors’ performances, caricaturing their tics and quirks.
With all this going for it, why can’t I say that I really liked A Scanner Darkly? I think the real problem here is with the source material. Dick’s novel is an insightful depiction of a certain kind of gutter existence but, for me at least, it was ultimately uninvolving. Arctor/Fred is too far gone and too little concerned about his own fate to induce empathy, and the other characters, though accurate and often darkly funny depictions of the chaotic ramblings and belligerent aggression of addicts, don’t have enough depth to make us care. A Scanner Darkly is a fascinating esthetic and intellectual experience but, like addiction itself, it’s an emotional dead end.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
A Scanner Darkly / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | July 11, 2006 | Comments ()