November 2006 -- A Scanner Darkly. Starring Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Rory Cochrane, Winona Ryder. Based on the novel by Philip K. Dick. Written and directed by Richard Linklater. (Warner Independent, 2006, Color, 100 minutes. MPAA Rating: R.)
Director Richard Linklater (Slackers, School of Rock) has brought to the screen a faithful adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s 1997 sci-fi novel A Scanner Darkly, a cautionary tale about drug addiction and the all-too-real “War on Drugs.”
This film’s predecessors were big-budget action movies such as Minority Report (2002), Blade Runner (1982) and Total Recall (1990)—the latter two based, respectively, on Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and his short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.” By contrast, A Scanner Darkly is an independent production with more intimate dialogue, locales, and situations, as well as a polished ensemble cast.
Set in Orange County, California, seven years in the future, the plot revolves around Keanu Reeves’s character, Agent Fred, a local narcotics officer. He’s assigned to gain the confidence of a passel of burnouts in order to find the source for the highly addictive “Substance D,” which is ravaging the brains of about twenty percent of the population. As Robert Downey Jr.’s character puts it, “Either you’re on it, or you haven’t tried it.”
Inside police headquarters, Agent Fred dons a holographic “scramble suit,” an undulating, visage-changing second skin that protects his anonymity. Out on the streets, he uses the suit to take on his workaday persona, Bob Arctor, a loser who has become an addict in order to avoid detection by the stoner housemates whom he is investigating. Although critics savage Keanu Reeves’s acting, you can’t deny that he has striking screen presence, something that often eludes more talented thespians. Here he gives one of his more convincing performances—ironically, by playing someone who’s heavily sedated most of the time.
Anyone who’s ever tried drugs will instantly recognize the bizarre logic of doper group dynamics. Woody Harrelson plays Ernie Luckman, a mind-expanding hippie who relates to everyday life through Beatles lyrics; Winona Ryder is Bob’s attractive girlfriend Donna, sexually frigid because her vascular system is constantly constricted by cocaine; Robert Downey, Jr. gives a nuanced performance as Jim Barris, a manipulative Iago who mouths pseudo-scientific doubletalk; and Rory Cochrane’s paranoiac Charles Freck suffers harrowing hallucinations of aphids swarming over his body—images that make Ray Milland’s DTs in The Lost Weekend seem like the paragonof sobriety.
Identity, reality, and hallucinations tumble over one another in this visual kaleidoscope, bits of which undoubtedly originated in the novelist’s own drug experiences.
Identity, reality, and hallucinations tumble over one another in a visual kaleidoscope, bits of which undoubtedly originated in the novelist’s own experiences with drug addiction and suicide attempts. In the novel, Freck strategically places a copy of The Fountainhead near his body prior to a suicide attempt in order to “prove he had been a misunderstood superman rejected by the masses and so, in a sense, murdered by their scorn.” A version of this scene survives in the film. This shouldn’t be perceived as a tribute to Ayn Rand , though: Dick didn’t sympathize in the least with her vision of a society of heroic, productive achievers. In a 1978 interview he commented, “I’m with the little man. I wouldn’t be with the ‘superman’ characters for all the money in the world. You know, the characters in Ayn Rand and [Robert] Heinlein who have such a contempt for everybody. Because one day that little man is gonna rise up and punch the superman out and I want to be there when it happens.”
Well, in this tale he has certainly given us little men aplenty.
A Scanner Darkly does present a vaguely libertarian argument about the threats to civil liberties from criminalizing drug use, and envisages a future in which the government exploits the War On Terror as a pretext to employ electronic surveillance of homes and public places in order to nab users and dealers. However, I doubt that this film’s relentlessly bleak portrait of drug addiction will win it many fans from among those single-issue libertarians who naïvely believe that legalization will cure a host of social ills. Apart from a couple of outrageous pothead scenes worthy of an old Cheech and Chong flick, the movie captures starkly the vicious circles in which addicts move—a world where the main focus is scoring the next fix, and the ultimate result is loss of identity in slavish drug dependency.
Yet, while the movie’s moral center remains intact, Linklater’s directorial approach doesn’t exactly make for the most riveting cinema. To re-create for the viewer the drug addict’s ambiguous, constantly shifting state of mind, visual effects director Richard Gordoa filmed in the animation process of Rotoscoping—a trippy, graphically seductive imaging technique that layers painted animation over actual footage of the actors. Although many movies pair dramatic images with a largely nonsensical plots—I think of David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive (2001)—I felt that without the Rotoscoping, A Scanner Darkly would be just as mundane as its aimless subjects.
That visual effect just doesn’t elevate its fairly threadbare story line, and the film never fully overcomes its gimmicky execution. While the surprise ending provides a satisfying payoff, having to sit through almost two lumbering hours to arrive at the climactic plot twist (as with Bryan Singer’s modern noir, The Usual Suspects) proved taxing. Linklater could learn a thing or two from Alfred Hitchcock’s masterful examples of how to build suspense throughout a film until it reaches fever pitch, and then unleashing the final shock.
Although A Scanner Darkly serves up a morsel or two of food for thought, what is up on the screen won’t compete with the buttered popcorn in your lap. Unless you wash it down with your drug of choice.