A Scanner Darkly

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Richard Linklater, based on the novel by Philip K. Dick

With Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Winona Ryder, Woody Harrelson, and Rory Cochrane

Richard Linklater has been preoccupied with dropout culture since the earliest days of his career: in the loopy Slacker (1991) and the larky Dazed and Confused (1993) he developed archetypal characters fueled by experimental lifestyles, mood- and mind-altering substances, and endless conversation. But more recently, as in the vertiginous Waking Life (2001), he’s tracked the gradual disillusionment of the dissolute, the drift of those once-sunny optimists toward an uneasy dystopia. Nowhere is this more evident than in his newest film, A Scanner Darkly, an ambitious animated adaptation of one of the most personal novels by sci-fi visionary Philip K. Dick.

Published in 1977 and set in 1994, Dick’s lurid, pulpy story follows a quartet of intensely verbal, directionless drug addicts as they lose their grip on reality. Linklater’s version is set “seven years from now” in Anaheim, California, a world in which the sort of genial potheads the director once let run wild in Texas have been worn down by a hard hallucinogenic drug known as Substance D. Twenty percent of the population is addicted. “There are no weekend warriors on the D,” comments one of its devotees, snaky motormouth Barris (Robert Downey Jr.). “You’re either on it or you haven’t tried it.” Paranoid doped-up citizens inform on each other as frequently as East Germans under the Stasi, either to save their own skins or to burn their friends and neighbors. Barris fingers his own druggie housemate, Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), whom he happens to owe a considerable amount of back rent, but has no idea how close to the truth he is when he suspects there’s more to Arctor than meets the eye.

Arctor is leading a double life as a narc named Officer Fred, working in a disguise so convincing he’s unidentifiable even to other cops. But he’s become addicted to the drugs he’s selling and using to blend in with dealers, and his deteriorating job performance has prompted concern among his supervisors. They assign him to a desk job, monitoring holo-scanners hidden in the suburban tract home of a suspected narco-terrorist–the house he shares with Barris and fellow doper Luckman (Woody Harrelson, gleefully taking his hemp advocate persona to another dimension). Fred’s job is to spy on Arctor–a daunting task, given they are one and the same.

A Scanner Darkly focuses on the nature of reality, perception, and identity, dreaming and waking, hallucinating and projecting, remembering and forgetting. To help actualize these multiple layers of reality Linklater has again teamed up with Bob Sabiston, whose interpolated rotoscoping software–which allows animators to paint over digitally recorded performances–was used to much the same effect in Waking Life. In that film color and form reconfigure in wavy, ever-permutating shapes, evoking a kaleidoscope made of Jell-O, but here figures are more precisely articulated, delineated by heavy black outlines like comic-book characters. The notable exception is Fred’s undercover disguise, a membrane-thin garment that constantly scrambles hundreds of images of body parts, making its wearer the consummate everyman. The animation’s sculptural quality maximizes the expressiveness of the actors, especially Downey, whose every neural twitch or sideways glance conveys amusement, menace, or both. Watching him, it’s hard to shake the feeling that, despite the computer-generated artifice, this is one of his most authentic performances.

The youthful antiauthoritarian stance that made Linklater’s films so celebrated still gets big laughs in Scanner, but they’re rueful laughs. The conspiracy theorists of Slacker reach their apotheosis in Barris and Luckman, with their dizzy, Substance D-driven riffs on rip-offs and home invasions by the cops. When Arctor’s car malfunctions on a busy freeway, he, Barris, and Luckman fall over each other trying to come up with possible explanations for the “sabotage.” Fed up with all the bickering, Arctor points out that maybe if they didn’t ingest so much Substance D, the car’s mechanical failure might not be such a mystery. “Don’t blame the drugs, man,” Luckman replies.

One link from Linklater’s early work that reverberates almost viscerally is the casting of Rory Cochrane, who played Slater in Dazed and Confused; his elfin pot smoker has morphed into Freck, a freaked-out addict who at the beginning of the film is convinced imaginary bugs are crawling all over him. Compare Slater’s goofy stoned rap about George Washington planting fields of pot everywhere (“a good cash crop for the south”) with Freck’s terror that the medics in a rehab clinic will maim him irrevocably–it’s like watching a set of before-and-after drug-prevention videos.

Attitudes toward romance and sexuality have also taken a hit as Linklater’s career has progressed. In 1995’s Before Sunrise, two carefree strangers meet on a train and disembark in Vienna for hours of intoxicating, soul-searching chat, culminating in a tender one-night stand. But by the time the two meet up again in the 2004 follow-up Before Sunset, having long ago broken their vow to reunite six months after their life-changing date, they’re jaded and almost too guarded to recognize their second chance at love. In Scanner romance and physical contact have been completely debased: cocaine has made Donna (Winona Ryder), Arctor’s drug-dealer “girl,” phobic about being touched, and Arctor, in frustration, turns to D-addled Connie (Lisa Marie Newmyer), who’ll perform in exchange for drugs. After they have sex Arctor wakes to a horrible shock: the sleeping Connie, like an image broadcast on crossed wavelengths, changes into Donna and back again. When Fred later checks his holo-scanner tapes, the same glitch occurs.

The casting of Reeves in the lead role is inspired: who better than the star of The Matrix and its sequels, a trilogy that borrows heavily from Dick’s sensibility and obsessions, to play a personality split through overindulgence in drugs and manipulation by outside forces he barely recognizes? Reeves is at his best conveying Arctor’s growing dependency, his isolation, and his angst over his unrequited love for Donna. His pain is all the more moving for its senselessness: how can you really expect to connect when your circuits are fried? As his holo-scanner surveillance of his own life increases, so does his paranoia and despair, and he reflects that “if the scanner sees only darkly, the way I myself do, then we are cursed . . . and we’ll wind up dead this way, knowing very little and getting that little fragment wrong too.”

As uncompromising and biting as it is, A Scanner Darkly resists indicting those who have too much time on their hands or those who’ve played too heartily. As Linklater wrote in a 1991 essay, opting out of conventional society for many is a deliberate choice that entails a lot of effort and ingenuity. The pursuit of transcendence–spiritually, intellectually, or through chemical assistance–is in and of itself far from suspect, and neither he nor Dick sits in moral judgment of the characters’ excesses. But they do flash a warning: danger can lie in too much of a good thing, especially when it threatens human connections and personal integrity. With any luck, at some point in adulthood, reviewing who and where you are, you discover the picture gets better when there’s no interference.

Where: Century 12 and CineArts 6, Esquire, Pipers Alley

When: Daily