A SCANNER DARKLY
100 min., dir. by Richard Linklater, with Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey, Jr., Woody Harrelson, and Winona Ryder
Although it doesn’t happen as often as it should, every now and then all the right cinematic elements come together to make a movie that’s entirely appropriate for that particular story. Such is the case with A Scanner Darkly, Warner Independent Picture’s recently released animated feature which paints a vivid portrait of a future world where drug use and authoritative control has gone down a very dark path. Based on the novel of the same name by Philip K. Dick, A Scanner Darkly is a movie-going experience that, liked or disliked, will definitely not be ignored nor forgotten.
For those of you not familiar with previous film adaptations of Dick’s other works, the novelist was responsible for the cult-classic ‘80s thriller, Blade Runner, along with Total Recall, Minority Report, and Paycheck. But anyone who’s seen the latter two films will know that even the most brilliant text can be disfigured into an unrecognizable piece of fluff when put in the hands of the wrong director. Steven Spielberg’s take of Minority Report was a bit too flashy, while John Woo’s Paycheck was a little too, well, stupid. A strange, shadowy, and drug-laced story can only be properly told on the silver screen by someone with experience in this field of off-beat work. And with a resume including Slacker, Waking Life, and Dazed and Confused, Richard Linklater is the man for the job.
A Scanner Darkly tells the complex tale of Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), an undercover narc living in a not-too-distant future version of Los Angeles. LA has become an overwhelming hub of drug abuse as a new highly addictive narcotic known only as “substance D” has spread through the city like wildfire. The audience soon learns that Arctor sacrificed his normal and genuinely happy family life in order to dutifully report to his superiors (under the pseudonym of “Bob”) the actions of substance D peddlers, which include James Barris (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson). The complications of the film arise when Arctor is assigned to spy on himself, for his superiors are unaware of Arctor’s identity in the police force thanks to “scramble suits” that generate thousands of scrambled physical appearances over the wearer’s own body. To make matters worse, Arctor also discovers that his own constant use of substance D has caused severe brain damage, more specifically schizophrenia. While both his double lives continue, one as Arctor the “D” dealer and one as “Bob” the police narc, the lines between reality and unreality begin to blur as the two halves of Arctor’s own brain begin to compete with themselves for identity control.
Anyone confused yet? Trust me that it will make far more sense when you actually see the film, as will the directorial choices of Linklater. The most obvious of these choices was the use of animating over live action performances. Any of you who caught 2001’s Waking Life will already be familiar with this stylish presentation. For the rest of you, it’s kind of like when you open a picture with Adobe Photoshop and play around with the “brush strokes” filters. I have overheard arguments between viewers: some say this combination of real and animated images is a perfect fit due to the film’s content that blends reality with fabrication; others insist it’s all just an attempt to make the movie look stylish and cool. I would have to agree with the former, for after my first viewing I tried to picture the film as a regular live action feature and it just didn’t have the same feel. Considering the bulk of the main characters are in the midst of intense drug trips for the majority of the film, what better way to get inside their overly medicated heads than to portray them as realistic cartoons?
So with the unique storytelling of Dick and with Linklater making great calls at the directing helm, the actors did everything but drop the ball to make A Scanner Darkly a decent film. I can only imagine a number of actors who would be intimidated with such quirky characters and this (for lack of a better word) insane storyline, but for this cast it seemed to be just another day at the office. Leading the troupe is Reeves, who is all too familiar with mind-bending narratives of the future (a la the Matrix trilogy). Right beside him throughout this wild ride is Downey, Jr. who has made a career playing strange roles you hate to love and vice versa (not to mention, you have to wonder if he brought his own experience with the world of drugs to the shoot each day). And let’s not forget Harrelson, whose job in the film is mostly comic relief, but it’s something he delivers to perfection. In fact, I had not enjoyed a Harrelson character so much since Roy Munson in 1996’s Kingpin, and in my opinion, Ernie Luckman is the funniest drug user since Floyd, Brad Pitt’s scene-stealing stoner in True Romance.
In the end, A Scanner Darkly is an anti-drug message, something that many other films (i.e. Requiem For a Dream) have covered before. The bitterest of audiences will most likely walk away saying, “The moral of that film was drugs are bad. Wow…tell me something I don’t know.” I feel sorry for these individuals who somehow missed out on the visual beauty, humor, cleverness, and originality of the film. I sure hope you get it.