Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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Movie review: A Scanner Darkly *****


Keenu Reeves and Winona Ryder in <i>A Scanner Darkly</i>.


Picture it. Philip K. Dick did.

Now Richard Linklater has.

Quite literally, and brilliantly.

Imagine a grimy, not-too-distant future ("seven years from now") that looks nearly indistinct from your present. Paranoid? You may be. I may be. It doesn't mean they're not after us. Government spying - pardon, terrorist surveillance program - has taken the obvious next step and merged the war on terror with the war on drugs. Now we're being monitored around the clock; somewhere a technician with a bank of monitors and a satellite uplink can locate you down to the square inch - a Big Brother Doppler 3000, of sorts.

But something is left alone:

Corporations, of course.

One in particular has cornered the market on rehabilitation clinics, leading the terminally paranoid to suggest (thinking of classic supply-and-demand models) perhaps big business and drug dealers are in bed together. In this world, it's hard to tell where the paranoia ends and the reality begins. At the start of Linklater's A Scanner Darkly, which opens today in Toledo, an Officer Fred is standing before a room of Rotarians, delivering the latest dispatch from the war on drugs, and he doesn't buy a word of it.

To protect his identity - he is currently deep undercover, infiltrating a Southern California flat of druggies and wasteoids - he wears a "scramble suit," which alters his identity from head to toe, thousands of times a second. He looks like a blur. But then, in front of him, the people he's addressing look like blurs. And also there's the blur of the life he once led; a wife and a pair of children. And there's the blur of his words, which sound increasingly meaningless to him - "exactly the garbage that gets people to try drugs," he thinks.

He should know.

In this hypnotic adaptation of Philip K. Dick's masterpiece, just because you're paranoid, and just because the government is as lousy as the drugs, doesn't mean you're not stoned. Officer Fred is played by Keanu Reeves, but Officer Fred has another name, Bob Arctor. Which, if you were taking a muscle relaxant, would probably sound like you trying to say "actor." It's a clever name - because Bob is an actor (of sorts). And also on drugs. And also an undercover narcotics officer. Identity is fluid in this film.

It melts, merges.

Bob's forgetting he's Fred.

Or is it the other way around?

Have you ever felt as if the coherent, thoughtful side of your brain was watching the destructive side commandeer the wheel and steer you over a bridge? Linklater captures it. Scanner tells the story of Bob Arctor's sad slide (decomposition, to be honest) into substance abuse - specifically, the abuse of Substance D, a scourge we're told 20 percent of the population has become addicted to. As Bob's flat mate Barris (Robert Downey, Jr.) says, "You're on it. Or haven't tried it."

Given all the cognitive dissonance, given what we have here is an adaptation of a Philip K. Dick novel, you shouldn't expect a typical moralizing story about the danger of drugs; you'd be wise not to expect typical sci-fi, either. First of all, the picture is deeply funny, partly because of a fantastic head-spinning performance by Downey as a motor-mouth with a surreal grasp of logic; partly because of Woody Harrelson, the other housemate, looking like a sheep dog. And partly because Linklater plays their endless screwball deliberating for both laughs and the pathetic floundering of junkies; and also as Dick did, he captures the camaraderie (however tenuous) they get being sad together.

Winona Ryder plays the question mark. She hangs out in the house, says she's too stoned to be involved romantically with Bob, but OK to supply him with D - enough D for the superiors of Officer Fred to ask him to get more information on this Arctor guy. Which means Bob, whose true identity is unknown to his bosses to ensure his undercover status, must inform on himself.

What else?

Right. Almost forgot.

It's all animated.

But not typically. As with Linklater's wild 2001 ramble Waking Life, the film was shot first live-action, then painstakingly, each frame was drawn over, outlined in thick black and set back in motion, until the result resembles an oscillating paint-by-number kit. If the film never quite takes off into the painterly ether of Waking Life, if the effect doesn't smooth over longer, more monotonous monologues, it gives the movie the expressiveness of an underground comic book. Hair floats. Faces do too.

A Scanner Darkly accomplishes what never seemed possible: the words of Philip K. Dick made tangible, sorted out, and given sense. David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch comes to mind. But it wasn't animated, and animation appears to be the ideal medium for Dick, the only way to capture the hallucinatory anxiety that defined his novels. Hollywood's been at them for years, the best being Blade Runner, Total Recall, and Minority Report - but in each case, I think, they pay kind of a backhanded compliment.

They make them huge, with big stars. The ideas are adored, sometimes explored in fabulous movies. But what gets sifted out is the menace - the sweatiness.

Not so here.

Dick died of heart failure at 53, in 1982. He was prolific beyond all reason, and not coincidentally popping more than 1,000 hits of speed at the height of his addiction. A Scanner Darkly came out five years before his death. It ends, like Linklater's movie, with a touching litany of the many friends of his who succumbed to drugs. Linklater knows people like this; he showed a fondness for them in Slacker and Dazed and Confused. They're the crackpots sitting around and warning us about the government and slow death of our civil liberties. They sound nuts. But to that litany, Linklater adds one name:

Philip K. Dick.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at:

or 419-724-6117.

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