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“A Scanner Darkly.”

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"Does it see into me?"
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 — 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 — 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 — 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 — 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 — 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 — 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 — 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" — 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 — 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)

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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