In the opening scene of A Scanner Darkly, director Richard Linklater's adaptation of Philip K. Dick's 1977 novel, a man wakes up covered in bugs. Scratching furiously and fruitlessly, he runs to the shower to wash them away. But just when he thinks he's clear, the bugs re-emerge from his skull and cover his body again. Twitching and panicky, he grabs a can of insecticide and sprays it all over his body.
The bugs aren't real. They're a hallucination caused by a drug called Substance D, which the man is addicted to. The scene is gripping, but what makes it even more interesting is the far-from-accidental casting. Playing the drug-casualty Freck is Rory Cochrane, the actor who, 13 years earlier, was the happy-go-lucky stoner Slater in Linklater's beloved Dazed and Confused.
This is a telling juxtaposition. Because as much as A Scanner Darkly explores the themes seemingly important to Dick (addiction, surveillance, identity), it also feels very personal for Linklater. In following a makeshift family of thirty- and fortysomething SoCal addicts, Linklater uses A Scanner Darkly to return to the dropout culture he chronicled in early-'90s classics Slacker and Dazed and Confused. And it isn't a pretty picture. The gaggle of paranoid, pontificating druggies (which include, also crucially, Gen-X icons Winona Ryder and Robert Downey Jr.) stuck in crash-pad squalor feel like the kids from Dazed and Confused, still dazed and still confused more than a decade after they should have cleaned up. The result is poignant -- Linklater's feel for the milieu still provokes laughs but with an undercurrent of sadness this time.
And as much as Dick's and Linklater's respective concerns merge easily in A Scanner Darkly, so does Linklater's visual strategy with the film's story. Linklater uses the same "rotoscope" animation that he used on 2001's astonishing Waking Life. As deployed by head of animation Bob Sabiston and his crew of artists (I counted 42 animators credited for A Scanner Darkly), this rotoscoping allows digitally recorded footage to be painted over. The result is the best of both worlds -- real personalities and performances along with the freedom of animation. In Waking Life, each character had his or her own animation style. In A Scanner Darkly, the look is more uniform, but the heightened expressions and shifting tableaus (the film's frame moves like a living organism) add to the hallucinogenic quality of the story.
Set "seven years from now," the central character in A Scanner Darkly is Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), an undercover narcotics officer who gets addicted to Substance D -- a designer drug that's ensnared 20 percent of the population -- while trying to work his way up the supply chain. Arctor has ensconced himself in a druggy clique that, in addition to Freck, includes hyper-paranoid conspiracist Barris (Downey), completely fried surfer dude Luckman (Woody Harrelson), and dealer/quasi-girlfriend Donna (Ryder).
"There are no weekend warriors on the D," Barris says. "You're either on it or you haven't tried it." But as Arctor and his pals descend into a D-fueled haze (they sometimes call the drug "death"), you sense that there may be larger forces pulling the strings, from the surveillance-minded government agency Arctor ostensibly works for to the shadowy corporation New Path, which may be working both sides of the "death" divide.
Arctor wears identity-morphing "scramble suits" on the job, and, as Substance D takes over, this conceit rhymes with Arctor's own internal shifts as different spheres of his brain battle for dominance. With Arctor's sense of reality and identity crumbling -- he's so disjointed at one point he isn't sure what woman he's making love to -- A Scanner Darkly can be hard to follow, although many of its questions are eventually answered.
But, ultimately, this confusion serves the film well. A Scanner Darkly takes you into the skittish, scorched-synapse world of its protagonists. Despite ostensible riffs on the drug war, surveillance society, corporate power, and suburban decay, it's not a message movie. It's too self-contained, too justifiably and rewardingly navel-gazing to make grand statements. It's a woozy, paranoid pleasure that stays with you long after the credits roll, and it demands repeat viewings. And it's further proof that Linklater -- America's most versatile director -- can do pretty much anything.
A Scanner Darkly
Opening Friday, July 14th
Studio on the Square