FILM REVIEW: A SCANNER DARKLY
By Michael Wilmington
Chicago Tribune Movie Critic
Philip K. Dick was a dark literary visionary, sometimes disguised as a prolific pulp science fiction writer, whose explosively imaginative tales could usher his readers into realms of dread, alternative lives and utter madness. So do some of the many movies of his stories (notably 1982's "Blade Runner"), though few of them are the pure stuff.
Richard Linklater's film of "A Scanner Darkly" comes close, though. It's one of the most faithful movie adaptations of any Dick story to date, and it comes from the scariest of all his books, as well as the truest: a bad dream that springs less from Dick's wild talent for future extrapolation than from his own sad, scarred life in the drug world of the '60s. (Dick died of heart failure at 53, in 1982.)
The movie isn't quite as scary, but it's fascinating: a stylistic experiment involving animation and rotoscoping (drawing on top of live-action filming), in the manner of Linklater's 2001 "Waking Life." And though it will bewilder some, as Dick's books often do, the movie conveys a shattering sense of wasted lives and mounting nightmare.
Dick based the 1977 novel "Scanner" partly on his own experiences in the California drug subculture. At the end of the book, there's a list of his friends who suffered or died from drug problems; Dick includes himself in that roster of casualties. In the film, though, we see only a little "family" of addicts drifting around in Anaheim, Calif., seven years in our future.
They're acted by a savvy ensemble: Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder and Rory Cochrane, all playing druggies in a world ruled by the imaginary narcotic Substance D (or "Slow Death") - people who suspect, often rightly, that they're on the edge of betrayal by surveillance devices, narcs or each other.
Their paranoia is justified. The junkie group's main man, Bob Arctor (Reeves), is also a police spy named Fred, whose top assignment is tailing Arctor (himself) - a crazy task that has split him in two. His friends get tangled in the web as well: Downey as smug, devious motormouth Jim Barris, Harrelson as hang-loose Ernie Luckman, and Ryder as Donna Hawthorne, Arctor's cocaine-addicted, sex-phobic dealer/ladyfriend. All four are surrounded by the police, but they're also sometimes working with the cops: Arctor's bosses, playing cat-and-mouse games.
Linklater, as in "Slacker," is adept at showing this dropout world, with its dopey hang-out routines: breaking down on the road, pulling knives, getting loaded - or being swallowed up in madness, as in the great Dick nightmare where another Arctor buddy, Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane of Linklater's "Dazed and Confused"), imagines he and his house are overrun with aphids.
There may be no real-life "Substance D" or scrambler suits - the Dickian device, well realized in the movie, that keeps "Fred's" face a shifting collage that can't be identified. But this is a story rooted in Dick's reality, deep in the drug culture he knew well and people he loved and lost. The movie brings out the truth and terror of his tale with admirable fidelity and daring technique. You can question whether Linklater should have used animation again this way - I hope they include the original live-action film on the DVD - but it does magnify the sense of fractured reality and narcotized eeriness.
Linklater is great with actors, and that includes the ensemble here. Everybody is good, especially Downey and Harrelson. Downey does Barris as a treacherous, egotistical creep rattling off long deadpan raps, most of which seem designed to show he's smarter than everyone else. Luckman is primo Harrelson; he's funny, pseudo-dumb and boisterous, a perfect foil for everybody.
"A Scanner Darkly" is a movie that tries, in a way, to mess up our minds. And it does. But the story was also meant by Dick as a healing experience, and Linklater gets that, too. He even includes, at the end, that devastating list of Dick's drug-wounded friends. While the animation is more conventional, less startling or magical than in "Waking Life" (there were troubles during production this time), the movie plunges us into nightmare. Watching "A Scanner Darkly," we can feel Dick's world close in on us. And we can be glad we're only visitors.
"A Scanner Darkly"
Directed and written by Richard Linklater; based on the novel by Philip K. Dick; photographed by Shane F. Kelly; edited by Sandra Adair; production designed by Bruce Curtis; music by Graham Reynolds; produced by Ann Walker-McBay, Tommy Pallotta, Palmer West, Jonah Smith and Erwin Stoff. A Warner Independent Pictures release; opens Friday, July 7. Running time: 1:40. MPAA rating: R (drug and sexual content, language and a brief violent image).
Bob Arctor/Fred - Keanu Reeves
Jim Barris - Robert Downey Jr.
Ernie Luckman - Woody Harrelson
Donna Hawthorne - Winona Ryder
Charles Freck - Rory Cochrane