A Scanner Darkly (2006)
Richard Linklater is a writer and director known largely for movies in which people wander around and talk. What sets him apart from the current indie trend called mumblecore is that, while movies like Slackers or Dazed and Confused may not really have a plot, they have a place and time. He typically explores the various people that live in a certain moment of time and, between scripted and improvised moments, eventually develops something solid out of all the chaos. I have seen many directors try this, and Linklater is one of the few that is successful.
A Scanner Darkly, though nominally a science fiction story, was written by Philip K. Dick based on his experiences with drugs and the effects it had on him and his friends. While it means characters need to be developed much more than in a lot of Linklater's films, it also gives him the chance to do what he does best: film people being people in the situation they are in. In this case it's three guys living in a house in Anaheim, all addicted to a futuristic drug called Substance D, which is derived from a rare flower and taking America by storm.
Unknown to them the owner of the house, Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), is an undercover narcotics officer for Orange County. In dealing with his superiors and others in his office he wears a scramble suit, a piece of wearable tech that constantly changes the appearance of the wearer, shuffling through a number of random appearances of both genders and giving the user a neutral male voice. The other occupants are James Barris (Robert Downey, Jr.), a paranoid engineer, and Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson), a more easy-going hippie type. Arctor has a girlfriend named Donna (Winona Ryder), whom he is working to get further up the chain to find out who the large supplier in the area is, while their mutual friend Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane) has reached a stage in his addiction where he is burnt out and suicidal.
The world they live in is heavily surveilled, and soon Bob's superiors start to think that he is higher up in the drug chain. Since no one knows who anyone else is in his department it leads to a situation in which cameras are placed in the house and Arctor is given the job of observing himself for the ongoing case. The problem is his own observations may not be accurate, as he has been taking Substance D to fit in with the others, and one of the effects is similar to having the connection of the brain hemispheres severed. As his job goes on it becomes apparent that he may not be the only person spying on himself, and that despite their efforts the proliferation of addictive substances may have a more sinister purpose.
Anyone who has been around people with heavy problems with addiction knows that their behavior can range from the frighteningly unpredictable to the hilarious to the pathetic, sometimes all within the span of a couple hours depending what drug and what their comedown is like. I have always thought what kept me straight was seeing in reality how people were when they were on them, and most of the movie reminded me about why I never got involved in that scene. I had enough of my own problems without adding something that took away all control. The book, or even the movie version, of A Scanner Darkly can have the effect of honestly talking about what drugs can do to a person. At the very beginning of the movie Arctor balks at a speech he is asked to give at a lodge giving the usual anti-drug party line, realizing that what he said was more likely to encourage people to try Substance D than to keep them off of it. Philip K. Dick partially wrote the novel both as a tribute to people he had lost along the way and as a warning to those who would follow.
The general plot - a police officer in an increasingly oppressive society trying to deal with narcotics trafficking when it appears that the authorities aren't really trying to stop it - is irrelevant to most of what happens in the forefront. That is where Linklater comes in, using his usual skill in presenting outsider characters in a human fashion while letting the bigger plot play out around them. Unlike other directors he also decided to largely adapt the book as it was, rather than using it as a stepping stone toward his own vision, like Blade Runner, Total Recall or Minority Report. As a disconnect from reality is needed he went with digital rotoscoping, much as he did with another movie of his called Waking Life. It allows for the world the characters live in to be subtly manipulated so that we often see things from their perspective.
This is one of Reeves's better performances, being more natural and not as stilted as many of his others. Robert Downey, Jr. was three years into his recovery from his own addictions at the time this was made, and Jim Barris is memorable as a man whose paranoia has slowly overcome his brilliance to the point where he no longer can truly interact outside of his circle of friends. Woody Harrelson, as can be expected, plays the character of Luckman as Woody Harrelson, while Rory Cochrane's small role as Charles Freck is a sad warning for all of them about where they are headed. Winona Ryder also shines as a cocaine addict with issues regarding physical contact.
If one is not used to Linklater's style this may seem like a entire film where very little happens, but again he is both using his typical methods of directing a film while trying to incorporate Dick's book as faithfully as possible, right down reading passages from it verbatim. Like a good portion of both men's work the important parts often happen in the background or come out unwittingly in conversation. I would love to say that the ending came out of nowhere but, if one is familiar with Dick's writing, one will be able to see it from a mile away.
Having Alex Jones pop up as a crazy "street prophet" spewing conspiracy theories (which in this case happens to be true, unlike the stuff Jones comes up with on his own) hasn't aged well. Luckily, the movie has, and it's one of those strange little artifacts from the last couple decades waiting to be rediscovered.
A Scanner Darkly (2006)
Time: 100 minutes
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey, Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder, Rory Cochrane
Director: Richard Linklater