A Scanner Darkly
by Richard Linklater (Dir.)
Review by Rogan Marshall
Warner Independent Pictures Theatrical ISBN/ITEM#: B00005JO07
Date: July 28, 2006 / Show Official Info /
Cast: starring Keanu Reeves, Woody Harrelson, Robert Downey Jr., Winona Ryder
Seven years in the future, at the apparent height of our War on Drugs, a narcotic called Substance D, or Death, is so hugely popular that it claims twenty percent of Americans as addicts. Made from a rare poisonous flower (which grows in an unnamed foreign country where our government happens to be fighting a war), Substance D causes immediate dependency, and virtually every user eventually suffers from a wide variety of disorders, both physical and psychological. The only way to get off the stuff is to check into one of the government's New Path neural aphasic clinics/rehab centers, where the form treatment takes is shrouded in menacing mystery.
Keanu Reeves plays an undercover narcotics officer; posing as Death junkie Robert Arctor, he owns a rundown suburban house in Anaheim, which serves as hangout and crash pad for a handful of fellow users, among them Woody Harrelson, Robert Downey Jr., and Winona Ryder. The house crawls with hidden cameras, that document a social scene seething with paranoia, and other bizarre, drug-induced mental activity. The way his operation is set up requires that Keanu wear a disguise whenever he checks in at the station; all the narc cops wear these "scramble suits," which give them constantly shifting features and identical voices. This is so the cops Keanu works for, don't know, themselves, which among the several druggies in the house under surveillance, is the narc, even when he's standing beside them – a hyperparanoid arrangement which we may presume protects the police operation from corruption. However, as Keanu grows more and more helplessly addicted to D, himself, the drug causes him to develop a bilateral split in personality and process – so that when he's in cop guise, he sometimes can't remember that his cover is Bob Arctor – and when he's at the house, posing as Bob Arctor – he can't remember who's really the narc...
A Scanner Darkly is one of the most sustained and most beloved of Philip K. Dick's many strange and wonderful novels; it is also one of the least, um, science fictional (if that's how you'd say it). The conceit of the fictional drug is transparently a satirical device, allowing Dick, and now Linklater, to comment on and criticize the actual American "underground" drug scene. (If that drug scene has changed significantly, in the thirty-odd years since the novel was written, the changes have only brought Dick's vision closer to reality.) Scanner's "Substance D" has the political and social significance of heroin, and the behavior and psychology we watch it induce, as well as the physical and mental damage, play a good deal like the endless catalog of horrors associated with methamphetamine abuse. As in Cronenberg's Naked Lunch, which substituted imaginary organics for cocaine and heroin in its analysis of cross-addiction, Dick's removal of the actual names of actual narcotics, all of which are seriously loaded with baggage in one sense or another for most viewers, brings useful objectivity to a controversial subject.
However, this hardly qualifies A Scanner Darkly to be considered, strictly speaking, as science fiction. (Perhaps the only other genre-tinted detail in the whole movie is/are the narc squad "scramble suits.") Neither does the use of cutting-edge animation, though it is pretty exciting: the entire movie is rotoscoped, a technique which lays animation over live action, resulting in a sort of mix of the two, which can, depending on the specific treatment of the image, emphasize either the real actors and action, or the cartoon atop them. In A Scanner Darkly the rotoscoping remains faithfully realistic, through and through, with very few, momentary exceptions; you don't, really, ever feel like you're watching a cartoon, as much as a live action movie, that's been peculiarly processed. The result is at turns both frustrating and fascinating – an awful lot, in fact, like the effect of an actual exotic drug. However, rumors and theories to the contrary notwithstanding, feeling "high" is not, in itself, science fiction.
But even if SFRevu isn't exactly the right place to get into it (being marginal as genre SF cursed Dick's finest work while he was alive, and still can and does, in certain circles), I can't recommend this movie highly enough. A Scanner Darkly attempts to address American drug culture from every angle, in every aspect, comprehensively, and definitively; and I believe it succeeds. This movie's exploration of the addict's psychological downward spiral is as pure and accurate a picture of that haunted place or process, as I've ever seen on a screen. (Um, not that I, you know, know much about drugs, or anything.) Like Trainspotting, A Scanner Darkly carefully balances its portrait of the junkie's life, showing us both its attractions and its horrors; A Scanner Darkly also manages to cover the politics of the War on Drugs with a thorough cynical insight that puts Traffic to shame.
Even when he's made second string or egregiously derivative pictures (which he has a few times – if you sat through Before Sunrise, you're tougher than I am), Linklater has always been good with dialogue and actors; regarding these strengths, he has, here, hit a new high watermark. The performances in this movie are all fabulously good, and the group dynamic in the drug house is perfect; those who appreciate drug humor will herein find the funniest and cleverest material along those lines since Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. This is quite a strange little movie, but despite the many distractions provided, it's easy to see that Keanu's performance is his long-awaited breakthrough: his Bob Arctor is remarkable, finely nuanced; funny, frightening, and sad.
Linklater's technique as writer and director, on this picture, goes way beyond straight adaptation, and the technical flash of the rotoscope. His script is a textbook example of how to adapt immensely rich and irkingly uncinematic source material to the screen, not just capturing, but honing the text, to the rigid focus the cinema requires; while his direction frequently crackles and pops with experimentalism and drug-addled dazzle, it is also continuously careful, and often artfully restrained; his respect for the picture's potential importance is palpable and laudable. The result rings true and deep on a level I normally associate with classic European cinema, and only see in an American movie, these days, once or twice a year at best.
For its politics alone, A Scanner Darkly is, indeed, important. I've never seen a movie attack the War on Drugs so savagely; so accurately. Dick's novel and Linklater's movie alike remind us quite powerfully that this is a "war" our government wages against its own citizens, for profit; a war that lists, among its casualties, our loved ones – people we know – people we all know. The movie closes with a long gut-wrenching quote from Mr. Dick on this subject, followed by a list of his own "fallen comrades," the author's friends killed or damaged by drugs. This message, along with its aftertaste of bereavement and righteous rage, could hardly provide A Scanner Darkly with a more appropriate punchline.