The Theory of Chaos

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - A Scanner Darkly

Full review behind the jump

A Scanner Darkly
: Richard Linklater
: Richard Linklater, based on the novel by Philip K. Dick
: Tommy Pallotta, Jonah Smith, Erwin Stoff, Anne Walker-McBay, Palmer West
: Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Winona Ryder, Woody Harrelson, Rory Cochrane, Chamblee Ferguson, Angela Rawna

Ultimately we don’t want dreams to make total sense, we want the meaning just slipping off the tips of our fingers.
A Scanner Darkly is Richard Linklater’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s bleak sci-fi novel about the tragic waste of drug addiction, and for as long as it possibly can it maintains the character of a dream, floating the audience in uncertainty and unease.

That is the mood of Robert Arctor (Keanu Reeves), through whose unreliable eyes we see the story, but because he’s in the grip of a condition that does not improve, eventually we must break from him and see things more clearly than he can. I wonder if you’ll be upset to find out what is actually going on, or more so that it’s explained in such a flat vanilla scene of dialogue. Because when Linklater is getting you lost, it’s damned compelling stuff even while it’s bleak, paranoid, often darkly funny but never far from mournful. Once you’ve found the plot, all that’s left for you to see is the sadness.

Dick didn’t intend to spare us – the story was his response to the real death and decay he saw happening around him, and Linklater even includes Dick’s simple epilogue: a list of friends he lost. For an audience it replicates both the interior and exterior effects of a drug trip, marrying headspinning visuals with the most strangling banalities.

The setting is Anaheim and the surrounding communities of Orange County a few years into the future; the film sees it as a barren place where the spark of life has been paved over – even the fast food joints have despairing names like “General Burger” and “Taco Hole”. It’s estimated some 20 percent of the population is now addicted to Substance D: the film never gets into what effect Substance D has that makes people want to take it. Maybe it’s enough that it does something.

It’s dissolving the brains of a generation, and the only hope offered is a mysterious but very polished clinic/ministry/sanitarium called New Path. How they managed to spring so fully-formed into being so quickly after the rise of Substance D is the cause of much speculation.

The police combat this drug epidemic – which induces paranoia and hallucinations – with some rather paranoid and hallucinatory methods of their own. Undercover detectives infiltrate drug dens with such secrecy that headquarters doesn’t even know their names or faces: when at the office they wear “scramble suits” which turn their visage into an ever-shifting blur of faces and bodies. Arctor is one such detective who lands in the awkward position of, in essence, investigating himself. And he’s not sure that he doesn’t merit investigating. These things happen on Substance D.

He lives in a ramshackle house with the wooly-headed Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson) and the conspiracy theorist James Barris, played by Robert Downey, Jr. with an intensity of focus that suggests he may be tapping into personal baggage. They spend their days looking for the next score, bickering, getting trapped in the minutiae of a life they’re losing the tools to cope with, wondering how they might, in theory, have sex with their drug connection Donna Hawthorne (Winona Ryder) and observing with some interest each others’ symptoms of decreased mental faculties. I’ve always thought that the anti-drug ads which show what a garble-spouting idiot you become under the influence are far more effective than the authoritarian “Just Say No” routine – A Scanner Darkly performs a similar public service.

I haven’t mentioned the animation – as with his film Waking Life the movie was first shot in live action, and then the images were drawn over in eye-popping colors. This allows for subtle emphasis in facial expressions, and you can see the planes of the background bend and shift in disorienting ways. It also makes it a simpler matter to cohesively present a man thinking he’s covered in bugs.

Some actors thrive under this method while others don’t. Reeves’ default mode of breezy non-comprehension (with an added dash of ennui) works mostly as an effective grounding wire which Harrelson and Downey can spark off of – Downey in particular charts a visible path for us through a very degenerate brain, one that can still produce streams of verbosity even if the content itself is losing coherence.

In structure the piece moves more like a short story. It lavishes time on sharply-observed anecdotal moments – see the twisted and tenuous path of reasoning by which the house’s occupants conclude they are being spied on; the punchline is, of course, that they’re right. And it cuts off when in most movies you’d just be headed for the big climax where Our Heroes Take the Fight to the Enemy. A Scanner Darkly isn’t that kind of movie – whether you want to see it will hinge on whether or not you want to be in the company of this mood and this state of mind for 100 minutes. Richard Linklater and company, for better and for worse, evoke it well.


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