A Scanner Darkly
The emergence of mind-altering chemicals as a widespread phenomenon on the cultural scene dovetailed, not so coincidentally, with a surge in speculative fiction. Inner and outer space mirrored one another, and the novel as hallucinogenic head-trip was born. But the dystopian downside of instant Eden was rarely depicted with any insight or conviction, with the exception of Philip K. Dick, who took it upon himself to describe, in exhaustive and penetrating detail, the modern labyrinth of the "bummer," and its relation to, well, everything around us.
A Scanner Darkly, Richard Linklater's scrupulously faithful adaptation of Dick's'1977 novel of the same name, makes no concessions to conventional narrative strategies in its portrayal of a future in which anti-drug police surveillance and the drug users and dealers they monitor blend into one. The movies have shown us addiction before, and its consequent degradation, but the peculiar essence of drug-induced paranoia, and its effects both disturbing and comical, has never been so successfully conveyed as in this film. Here, Linklater returns to the rotoscope animation (shooting real actors in real scenes and then "animating" the footage by projecting it on a matte, tracing and coloring it) that he used in Waking Life,but much more meticulously, with a resulting sharpness of line and color. It makes perfect sense to do this, since the story, involving hallucinatory states of consciousness, is thereby made tangible.
A narcotics agent known only by the code name of "Fred" (Keanu Reeves) is living under the identity of "Bob Arctor" with two other people in a Southern California drug house; his mission is to find the source of his girlfriend dealer's "Substance D," an extremely powerful and disorienting drug that has taken over the streets. The narcotics agents all wear "scramble suits"--cloaks that hide their identity under an ever-shifting surface of alternating facial characteristics. The disorienting display of these suits mirrors the film's effect on the viewer. They seem designed to induce queasiness--we lose our bearings, and the sequences in the narc headquarters become difficult to watch.
The choice of Reeves in the lead role is less than fortunate--it's no secret that his expressive range is limited, so his character's gradual dissolution is less stirring than it's meant to be. However, Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson are very funny as his druggy pals. Downey in particular turns in a performance of inspired lunacy as a manic paranoid conspiracy nut who ends up informing on Arctor to "Fred," of course not realizing that Fred is Arctor. The labyrinth becomes increasingly difficult to trace as "Fred" proceeds to monitor himself with the titular scanner, a virtually omniscient surveillance device. Addicted to Substance D, his left and right brains losing contact with one another, "Fred" appears to have forgotten that he is the person he's investigating.
Winona Ryder plays Arctor's girlfriend Donna, perpetually spaced out and apparently frigid. When Arctor makes a pass at her, she pushes him away with the excuse that it's dangerous for someone to touch her because she's done too much coke. Rory Cochrane is highly entertaining as a doomed D-junkie who thinks he sees aphids crawling out of his pores in the film's title sequence. But the picture, for all its hilarious moments, is not a humorous romp. The dominant moods are fear, despair, and confusion. Linklater has made a film about social control and the loss of identity, and combined with his love of abstruse chatter, this makes the picture a potentially hard sell to audiences looking for the usual excitement or distraction. It's a head trip all the way, and it's not without its self-indulgent flaws, but like a bad flashback it returns later with added meanings.
Linklater is a filmmaker who continues to surprise with new angles and approaches, and A Scanner Darkly is a genuine, up-to-date social satire that takes time to digest. One need only contrast this film with the cheap histrionics of V for Vendetta to appreciate how an authentic artist can stick to the details in order to stay true to a radical vision.
©2006 Chris Dashiell