It’s odd when you realize that the novels and short stories of Philip K. Dick have been adapted to the screen almost as frequently as that of Stephen King or John Grisham. Odd because, unlike the pulpier writing of both King and Grisham, Dick’s stories are quite cerebral and, in the most traditional Hollywood sense, uncinematic. Here’s a quick rundown: “Blade Runner” (1982), “Total Recall” (1990), the French film “Confessions De’un Barjo” (1992), “Screamers” (1995), “Impostor” (2002), “Minority Report” (2002), “Paycheck” (2003), “A Scanner Darkly” (2006), and the now in-production adaptation of “The Golden Man”, since retitled “Next” starring Nicolas Cage and Julianne Moore.
In most cases, Dick’s dense and paradoxical plots are used as nothing more than loose pretexts for standard Hollywood action adventure stories. These often feature more proactive heroes in place of the meditative and often reality challenged protagonists of Dick’s original stories. Clearly, Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Total Recall” wasn’t going to waste time with philosophical arguments when he could fire off a few rounds to establish his own sense of reality.
However, Richard Linklater is a filmmaker who has demonstrated an almost obsessive interest in philosophic debate and discussion. From the opening scene of his first released feature, “Slacker”, Linklater has made the “uncinematic” talking head his niche and has demonstrated a mysterious ability to float on magic carpets of non plots and inaction without putting everyone into a collective coma. His characters talk and theorize, question and rebut, pause to think, and then talk some more but somehow all this is rendered by Linklater as spellbinding cinema, which is what I found “A Scanner Darkly” to be.
With “A Scanner Darkly”, director Richard Linklater has married the Kafkaesque plot of Dick’s 1977 novel with his own sensibility for just letting the movie “hang out” and come up with what could be described as “Waking Life” with a story. And what a complex, paradoxical story it is: Keanu Reeves plays an undercover narcotics detective named Officer Fred who ingests massive amounts of a dangerous drug called Substance D in order to maintain his cover. As Bob Arctor, Officer Fred surrounds himself with various hangers on in the hopes of tracking down the suppliers of Substance D.
Offer Fred’s circle of friends include his house-mates Barris (a dazzling Robert Downey, Jr.) and Luckman (Woody Harrelson), Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane), who is moving into a more frenzied stage of addiction, and Donna Hawthorne (Winona Ryder) who may or may not be the one who has the connection to the suppliers. Since it’s required that all narcotics agents remain anonymous to each other, officers wear a “scramble suit” of constantly shifting identities. This is how Officer Fred is given the mind bending task of spying on Arctor: No one in his unit knows that Fred is Arctor.
Since Substance D is a hallucinogen which, over time, weakens the functions of the brain’s left hemisphere forcing the right hemisphere to accommodate, Arctor begins to loose his grip on reality. Is he Officer Fred spying on Bob Arctor or is he really Bob Arctor who pretends to be Officer Fred at work? Since he is so confused, no one else can be less confused and in some really crazy events, Downey , Jr. informs on Arctor to Arctor as Fred.
The synopsis above makes the movie sound like some kind of police procedural similar to “Serpico” or “The French Connection”, but this could not be farther from the truth. Linklater slides around all of the plot points, leaves it to the audience to figure out the various inter-relationships and focuses on what he likes most: characters in perfectly crafted conversations, just hanging out. Once again, he makes the most of these conversations to slyly develop both character and story.
Now, for the big difference: the visual style. The surreal, almost liquid rotoscoped animation from “Waking Life” is applied to “A Scanner Darkly”, and with a story steeped in rubbery reality, this is a really great choice. The film would not be half as good were it not animated. Everything — roads, trees, houses, people, and skies — seem to hang in temporary space, always about to shift and twist away at a moment’s notice. A further uncanniness is created by the perfectly rotoscoped features of Reeves, Downey , Jr., Harrelson and Ryder, whose celebrity faces are so familiar to us. The animation places them all in a hyper reality, familiar and yet strange. The actors literally become the characters they are playing and quite differently from how Stanislovski intended.
Finally, I think it’s about time someone created a new award to give away, that of “Most Improved Actor”. I can’t think of another actor who has improved more through the years than Keanu Reeves, who really gives an excellent performance as Offer Fred aka Bob Arctor. Or is that Bob Arctor aka Officer Fred?
Richard Linklater (director) / Philip K. Dick (novel), Richard Linklater (screenplay)
CAST: Rory Cochrane …. Charles Freck
Robert Downey Jr. …. James Barris
Mitch Baker …. Brown Bear Lodge Host
Woody Harrelson …. Ernie Luckman
Keanu Reeves …. Bob Arctor
Cliff Haby …. Voice from Headquarters (voice)
Steven Chester Prince …. Cop
Winona Ryder …. Donna Hawthorne