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A Scanner Darkly   A-

Warner Independent Pictures / Thousand Words

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Richard Linklater
Writer: Richard Linklater (based on the novel by Philip K. Dick)
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder, Rory Cochrane, Dameon Clarke, Melody Chase.

Review by Rob Vaux

Philip K. Dick's reputation has grown in leaps and bounds over the past two decades, thanks in large part to the many cinematic adaptations of his work. Yet purist fans of the late author would argue that none of those adaptations -- brilliant as some of them were -- truly reflected the essence of Dick's voice. They spiced up his grim dystopias with flashy visual effects, while casting square-jawed actors of the Harrison Ford variety as characters who were really more Steve Buscemi. And as great as they were (Blade Runner is indisputably one of the best science-fiction pictures of all time), they never quite captured the edgy paranoia that Dick excelled at: the drug-fueled certainty that someone really is out to get you. Director Richard Linklater boldly addresses that imbalance with A Scanner Darkly, which puts the mindset of Dick's work ahead of its sci-fi trappings. The results are a brilliant (if challenging and somewhat difficult) success.

As a live-action film, A Scanner Darkly might have been merely adequate, with stars like Keanu Reeves and Woody Harrelson deftly inhabiting the mindset of borderline insanity. But Linklater adds an important dimension by presenting the story using interpolated rotoscoping -- the surreal animation style he introduced with 2001's Waking Life. Critics will claim that it's just a gimmick, using a slick counterculture sheen to cover up a dull plot. But as a means of getting inside its characters' heads, it's practically unequalled, conveying a queasy, bend-around-the-corners dreamscape where all manner of unseen things may be watching. The overt displays of corporate and police corruption are present, of course, but dialed down almost to the subtextual level -- existing more as concepts in the characters' minds than jack-booted storm troopers or impossibly tall skyscrapers. Indeed, despite its futuristic setting and a few pieces of high technology, this needn't be a science fiction film at all, but any corner of America today.

And that's sort of the point. A Scanner Darkly embraces the notion that the war on drugs has utterly failed, and now exists only to provide those in power with a handy saber to rattle. The authorities posit battles against concepts and ideas rather than nations or governments, giving them a blank check to increase their stranglehold on society. Without drugs, there would be no paper tigers to oppose, and thus their primary motivational tool would vanish. Beneath that Orwellian equation, concepts of individual identity slowly crumble, caught between a system claiming one paradigm and a hazily perceived reality demanding another. It doesn't help that the drug in question -- a thinly veiled fiction known as Substance D -- facilitates the schizophrenic division of the brain among its addicts. In this world, perception and truth no longer exist, replaced by an inextricable tangle of meaningless ideology and survival instinct.

No one feels that condition more acutely than Bob Arctor (Reeves), an undercover cop ostensibly working to stop the Substance D epidemic. Hiding his identity beneath a scramble suit (a high-tech Halloween sheet depicting ever-shifting images of faces and features), he files inscrutable reports to his fellow officers without divulging his true identity. He's also heavily addicted to the D, and the house where he once lived with his wife and children is now a trash-infested pit occupied by fellow junkies Barris (Robert Downey Jr.) and Luckman (Harrelson). Arctor's girlfriend Donna (Winona Ryder) plays something of a den mother, but she's on the D herself and her wan presence does little to hold back the encroaching chaos of their fevered delusions. Someone in that house is supposedly the link to a larger drug kingpin, and Arctor's superiors want him to find out who -- but since they don't know who Actor himself is, they don't differentiate between subjects in the house... meaning that he's saddled with the uniquely ironic duty of spying on himself.

Linklater plays up the absurdity of the situation every now and then, providing unsettling laughs that belie the slow mental disintegration beneath them. The rotoscoping technique allows him to fully visualize the toll that drug addiction takes, from the ubiquitous bugs beneath the skin to incoherent conspiracy theories that develop from utterly trivial incidents. His actors fit the twitching, struggling-to-grasp-it-all model required for such material -- Reeves at his inscrutable best, Harrelson flaky but dangerous, Downey a hairsbreadth from total psychological collapse -- which the script enhances with the growing realization that they're little more than bugs in a petri dish. It's not an easy ride: the plot is quite baffling at times, and though it requires our constant attention, it offers little in the way of visual rewards (beyond the novelty of the rotoscoping). But the currents beneath it are astonishing, tying us to the protagonists and allowing us to see the machinations destroying them from the inside out. Linklater skips away from obvious broad strokes, keeping the important things out of sight and allowing us to peer at them only through the most oblique signals. We see things not with the false omniscience that the movie camera normally affords us, but with the damaged, sweaty perceptions of the characters -- and with their shared belief that something they've missed is going to turn around and bite them on the ass.

The results keep A Scanner Darkly true to Dick's authorial voice, which grappled with the same downward spiral of paranoia and persecution (an end-of-credits list shows the names of the author's friends who died or suffered permanent brain damage from drug use). Its dystopic vision thus speaks most truthfully to our present -- and Dick's past of the 1970s, whose cultural zeitgeist is alive and well in the new millennium -- rather than any broken-down vistas of a far-off future. That's the trick that earlier adaptations never quite pulled off, giving A Scanner Darkly a unique edge over its fellows. It succeeds because it places Dick's nameless terrors as close as the beady-eyed gaze of our next-door neighbor -- a gaze that says, "I see you, buddy, and I know what you did."

Review published 07.05.2006.

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