A Scanner Darkly: Finely Controlled Substance
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 14, 2006; C01
Without its animation, "A Scanner Darkly" would have made a fine cautionary tale about drug addiction, paranoia and institutional treachery in a foundering police state. But with a technique that turns live action into a two-dimensional cartoon, the movie goes one -- maybe even 10 -- better.
It becomes its own living, breathing metaphor. The characters look as though they have been flattened inside a glass slide, a perfect visual reflection of their political and psychological binds.
Richard Linklater's adaptation of Philip K. Dick's novel of the same name is in a special dimension. The director has re-rendered scenes -- which he filmed with Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Winona Ryder and others -- with a watercolorish electronic wash, transforming everything into a restive painting. Linklater calls this process "interpolated rotoscoping." He first used it in his 2001 film "Waking Life," but it works better here. "Scanner," set "seven years from now" in Anaheim, pulls us into a world so lost in narcotic oblivion (20 percent of the population is hooked on a drug called Substance D) that no one grasps the larger dystopia. Even undercover cops -- such as Bob Arctor (Reeves) -- don't get the big picture. They're caught in their own workday ordeals which, in Bob's case, is surveillance.
At home, Bob's a regular guy, partaking in Substance D with his addicted housemates. But those friends -- played with entertainingly addled banter by Downey, Woody Harrelson and Rory Cochrane -- don't know Bob's a narc. He prowls the neighborhood in a "scramble suit," a sort of two-way-mirror garment that allows him to see out, but obscures his identity with shifting images of human faces. His friends have no hint of something more insidious: Bob has been assigned to watch them, as well as his drug-dealing girlfriend, Donna Hawthorne (Ryder), so he can catch their suppliers.
There are even more twists ahead. Bob's mysterious superior, who also wears a scramble suit and knows Bob only as "Fred," orders the undercover cop to spy on . . . Bob. That leaves Bob attempting to compile a dossier on himself while struggling with a growing drug addiction. Not surprisingly, his mind starts to unravel, which may explain why his friends are starting to look like giant bugs.
Of the many movies adapted from Dick's books, including "Total Recall," "Blade Runner," "Screamers" and "Minority Report," Linklater's is unassailably the most faithful. Most of the 1977 novel is reprised here, from its dialogue to the brilliant commingling of creepy comedy and absurdist tragedy. There's another difference, too. Unlike those other action-oriented films, "A Scanner Darkly" is colored by Dick's foray into the realm of mind-altering drugs.
Linklater, who also wrote the screenplay, is no passive partner in this collaboration. He infuses "Scanner" with the goofy spirit that enlivened his early films, "Slacker" and "Dazed and Confused." His comic scenes are funny on the surface, certainly, but they're symptomatic of a civilization that's disintegrating.
Downey gives a nicely honed performance as the motormouthed, paranoid James Barris, who's obsessed with proving his questionable genius. In one scene, for instance, Barris parades a bicycle, an 18-speeder he claims to have bought for a song. Donna suggests it's stolen. Ernie Luckman (Harrelson) is sure the bike has only nine gears. Suddenly Barris's composure self-destructs. Hysteria mounts, with everyone shouting and ratcheting themselves up into such a peak of hysteria, even nutty old Barris feels compelled to tone things down.
"We are all way too close to this," he says, quietly.
Harrelson is almost as good as Downey. Luckman's excitable hysteria belies his receding (thanks to Substance D) common sense. And as Charles Freck, the roommate who's convinced he's constantly crawling with aphids, Cochrane owns his corner with understated charm. You have no doubt that, in his quiet way, Freck is the craziest loon on the lake.
These antic scenes, it turns out, are mere prelude to even weirder developments, as Bob begins to understand that elusive big picture and his ultimate purpose.
Linklater's rotoscoping process underscores this grave new world with pop-arty creepiness. Its dramatically muting effect, which shaves the highs off the more histrionic performances yet doesn't undercut the more subtle elements, such as Cochrane's turn, squeezes everything into a unified nightmare. Under that flickering overlay, we can sense everyone's entrapment and deep-seated anguish. And loneliness seems more numbingly hopeless than we ever imagined.
A Scanner Darkly (100 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for drug use, cartoon nudity, profanity, sexual content and a brief violent image.