Richard Linklater‘s "A Scanner Darkly" captures the bleary, jittery feel of a sleep-free three-day bender so well that it’s often remarkably unpleasant to watch â€” the rotoscoped animation style Linklater first used in 2001’s "Waking Life" (another one we found unpleasant to watch, for different reasons) has been refined to something close enough to lifelike to be constantly disconcerting. The animation renders the actors slightly exaggerated versions of themselves â€” Keanu Reeves, as Fred, an undercover cop investigating a drug ring, is all cheekbones and under-eye circles in closeup, while from further away his five o’clock shadow hovers over his face, a smear of grey-brown; Winona Ryder is practically a floating pair of too-wide eyes; Robert Downey Jr. seems so wired he almost quivers…well, that’s not such a novelty â€” and, intentional or not, the very walls and floors tremor slightly. Perspective is off.
We’ve never read the Philip K. Dick novel on which the film is based. By most accounts, the film follows it closely, which is interesting because it seems like such a vintage Linklater stoneresque flick, if one wedded to a particularly grim sensibility and weighted with sci-fi trappings. It’s the near future â€” we’re told that 20% of the population is addicted to Substance D, a new designer drug, and law enforcement is scrambling to figure out where it’s coming from, while the government has contracted a private firm, New Path, to run rehab centers for the overwhelming flow of addicts, most of whom develop severe neurological problems from the drug. Fred works in a department in which all of the officers wear "scramble suits" to obscure their identity when they’re not working undercover â€” only the higher-ups seems to know who’s working on which case. Fred’s alter-ego is Bob Arctor, a D addict living in a run-down house with two others, Barris (Downey) and Luckman (Woody Harrelson), and sometimes dating Donna (Ryder), a dealer he’s ostensibly trying to investigate. Reeves, Downey and Harrelson are a kind of grand triumvirate of druggy actors, and their scenes together are surprisingly funny, if claustrophobic and meandering: conversations are endless and circular, epic illogic reigns. Fred doesn’t seem to be making much headway in his investigation, possibly because he’s been asked to focus it on Bob Arctor â€” himself.
What does D do, exactly? We seem to only see the accumulating side effects, though there must be some initial appeal to it, before the hallucinations and paranoia and separation of the two sides of the brain. Despite the film’s broad dystopian themes and hints at a nation poisoned and crumbling from within, we never get far beyond the circle of burnouts we’re introduced to in the beginning, just as they can’t seem to tear themselves out of each other’s orbit. If anything, the sci-fi aspects of the story serve as fulfillment of any addict’s worst paranoid delusions â€” that you really are being watched, that your ramshackle house really is wired with the latest in undetectable technology, and that somewhere nearby your every move really is being pored over by a bevy of government agents.
It’s hard to feel much about "A Scanner Darkly" â€” as a gloomy mood piece, it’s interesting but forgettable, too emotionally remote to leave much of an impact. This is the first Dick novel (as opposed to short story) adapted into a film in the US since "Blade Runner," and, like most of his novels, the film struggles with balancing arresting ideas with a believable world. When the film suddenly accelerates toward an ending whose outcome you’ve probably already guessed, it’s both jarring and implausible â€” come on, really? Surely the grounded (if stylishly depicted) despair seeping out of everything that came before is worth more than such an artless, portentous end?
Opens today in limited release.
+ "A Scanner Darkly" (Official site)