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Tuesday, July 18, 2006

A Scanner Darkly

A Scanner Darkly, Richard Linklater's film adaptation of Philip K. Dick's 1977 novel, is a unique film that comments on both the dangers of drug use and the futility of the war on drugs. The main character (Keanu Reeves) is both Bob Arctor, part of a household of hippie drug-users, and Agent Fred, an undercover police agent assigned to spy on them. Arctor/Fred hides his real identity from his drug using friends and from his fellow agents, too. In this world, all narcs are required to wear special suits that mask their true identities. While posing as a drug user, Arctor actually becomes addicted to a very potent psychoactive drug called “Substance D.” Although it is never stated outright, it is pretty clear that Substance D is supposed to be methamphetamine. The drug begins to cause permanent cognitive damage, and Arctor begins to see the world as a split-brain patient—that is, his two hemispheres don’t work together. He loses the ability to differentiate his different roles and, as the film progresses, so do we.

The "scanner" of the title is a recorder with which the narrator views clips of his own life but doesn't recognize them. The title is also a biblical reference--"we see as through a mirror darkly" (1 Corinthians 13)—thus conveying the narrator’s tenuous grip on what is real and what is not. Those who are film fans will also recognize the reference to Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly, which also dealt with the themes of mental illness and hallucinations.

The performances in A Scanner Darkly are what really make it enjoyable. Keanu is really good at acting confused, so he is well cast as Arctor. Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson, famous for their off-screen drug use, are perfect as Barris and Luckman, Arctor’s two paranoid, drug-addled associates. Rory Cochran, who also starred in Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, is really fun to watch as Freck, a jittery drug addict with buggy eyes and persistent tactile hallucinations. His performance reminded me of Benicio del Toro’s character in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Much like Fear and Loathing, A Scanner Darkly has a real knack for conveying the drug experience with remarkable realism. The dialogue, skillfully adapted from Dick’s original prose, is simultaneously comic and tragic. It’s rare to see a film with an anti-drug message that portrays drug addicts with accuracy.

A Scanner Darkly was filmed digitally and then animated using a technique called interpolated rotoscoping, previously used in Linklater's film Waking Life. It is very beautiful and slightly disorienting. Although it can be difficult to watch for long periods of time, this animation technique, being both real and surreal at the same time, was a good choice for the material.

The amount of money I would pay to see this movie: $8


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