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Scanning the Sad Life of Addicts

By Jeremy Mathews
A Scanner Darkly
1/2 (out of four)
Warner Independent

Written and directed by Richard Linklater

Based on the novel by Philip K. Dick

Starring Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Winona Ryder, Woody Harrelson and Rory Cochrane
Rated R

The late Philip K. Dick's novels and short stories have been the starting point for many films, but most of them abandon Dick's challenging ideas and free-flowing philosophy after cribbing his intriguing science-fiction setups. Richard Linklater's animated feature "A Scanner Darkly," however, is completely loyal to its source's spirit, full of absurd, funny and sad characters trapped in a slightly more desolate version of our modern world.

The film takes place seven years in the future, but Los Angeles looks the same except for a few new technological devices, more surveillance cameras and a dramatic increase in drug addicts thanks to a super-addictive illegal drug known as Substance D. The film explores its drug-addicted characters through tangental detours and masterful set pieces, showing how their desire to alter their sense of reality has caused them to lose control of it.

"A Scanner Darkly" is the second feature-length film made with the digital "interpolated rotoscoping" technique, following Linklater's masterpiece "Waking Life" (2001). The process uses live-action digital video as the guideline for animating on a desktop computer. While "Waking Life" constantly morphed the look of its animation, "A Scanner Darkly" has a consistent and sleek design that will please those who didn't like the handheld aspect of "Waking Life," although others will miss the adventure and energy of the earlier film. While "A Scanner Darkly" isn't quite as successful in achieving its goal due to some rushed character development in the second half, it's still a brilliant display of the medium's possibilities.

Keanu Reeves stars as an undercover police officer codenamed Fred who is trying to track down drug suppliers by poising as Bob Arctor, a burnt-out drug addict who hangs out with a bunch of loser addicts who don't exactly look like criminal masterminds.

His housemates Barris (Robert Downey Jr.) and Luckman (Woody Harrelson) are at best equipped only to give their friend Freck (Rory Cochrane) advice on how to get the imaginary aphids off of his body or have sex with Arctor's girlfriend, Donna (Winona Ryder). Donna deals Substance D, so is Arctor's best hope of getting in contact with a supplier.

Reeves does quite well in the starring role, but Downey upstages him with one of his best performances as a would-be intellectual junkie whose animation pulsates as he energetically conceives such schemes as a homemade silencer.

At times the performances and the individual scenes overpower the plot, in which Arctor tries to figure out if someone is sabotaging him. Arctor's chief—who doesn't know "Fred's" identity—tells him to investigate himself as a potential druglord.

When Fred speaks with his colleagues and commanding officers, he wears a "scramble suit," a device that makes him look like a blur of continually changing features from thousands of different people. The visual provides a metaphor for Arctor's increasingly disjointed mind, which grows less and less certain of what's happening as he takes more and more drugs. The inside-the-suit closeups of Reeves' face feel like fading moments of clarity as the garbled mess of a man tries to make sense of his unclear surroundings, from his friends and enemies to his own identity.

Linklater's (and Dick's original material) dialogue perfectly capture the point of view of addicts, as they talk for hours about nothing, try to extract cocaine from insect repellant and turn an attempt at a meaningful suicide into an eternal hallucination about a green-skinned monster. At various moments, the characters insist that they don't use that many drugs, although they can't actually pin down the amount they consume in a day. It's as funny, biting and surreal as it is sad.

jeremy [at]


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