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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

A Scanner Darkly (review)

No Escape

What was that bit about the man who dreamt he was a butterfly, and when he woke up he didn’t know whether he was a man who had dreamt he was a butterfly or a butterfly who was now dreaming he was a man?

That’s the kind of freaky, lie-awake-all-night existential nightmare that’s all over A Scanner Darkly like cartoon all over Mickey Mouse. This ain’t no kiddie show, though, this rotoscope-animated philosophical horror film, but maybe, if you wanna keep the tykes off drugs, this is the toon to plop them down in front of, a rambling, seemingly drug-induced shuffle through the loss of identity and awareness that comes shackled with addiction. Yes, we have no marbles, the Substance D-addicted bananas here might say, no marbles left at all after years of pumping our bodies full of chemicals designed to fool us into believing we really are beautiful and unique snowflakes.
And oh, yes, the evil cleverness, the deep and seriously profound wit of casting — as Richard Linklater (Before Sunset) does here — Keanu Reeves (Constantine, Thumbsucker) as a man dreaming he is a butterfly, so to speak. Reeves, with his melancholy insolence that everyone mistakes for lethargy, with his irony so deadpan it goes all the way back around to something like calculated self-parody. Reeves, iconic for once taking a red pill (or was it a blue pill?) as a path to the truth, is Bob Arctor, a Substance D junkie, and he is Fred, an undercover narcotics cop, and he is so far gone on Substance D, which causes the personality of a user to split in two, that he is beginning to forget that he is both people at the same time… that he used to be merely pretending to be one of them.

By the time you get around to wondering which one was the pretense, the junkie or the cop, Bob/Fred is so far down his own rabbit hole that there seems no escape for him. And if you’ve let yourself be taken over by the odd, ugly beauty of Scanner Darkly, losing yourself in this knowingly languid and stubbornly unpin-down-able film, you will find it takes you to places you know and don’t want to know at the same time. Can you blame Bob and his buddies — the faux philosopher James Barris (Robert Downey Jr.: Good Night, and Good Luck., Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, as always so brilliant it almost hurts to watch him), the perpetually confounded Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson: A Prairie Home Companion, The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio), and the hallucinatory Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane: Hart’s War) — for escaping into the synthetic dreams of mind-altering drugs when all around them is nothing but a dreary and oh-so familiar world of plastic strip malls under constant and total surveillance? A societal capitulation to a drug culture that cannot be reigned in and a simultaneous ramping-up of the war on drugs is part of what catapults Scanner just barely into the realm of science fiction; this is all happening “seven years from now” in Anaheim, California, but it could be tomorrow, anywhere. The “scramble suit” that Fred wears to protect his identity as an undercover cop, even from his own superiors, is less solid SF than nebulous metaphor… or a metaphor for nebulousness: It’s hard to imagine that anyone, even a half-brain-dead drug addict, would be fooled by the constantly shifting jigaw-puzzle pieces of a thousand different faces and bodies that flow across the full-body suit into seeing nothing but a “vague blur.” But it’s easy to be horrified by the conformist, plain-vanilla culture that asks its “upright citizens” to cheer for the vague bluriness of anonymity and conventionality.

And yet there’s nothing the least bit glamorous about the escape, either. Linklater lets long scenes of Substance D-fueled conversations — about nothing in particular except the skewed way of thinking that mind-altering chemicals produces — peter out from the amusing but sad to the downright pathetic. The slow chipping away of personal connections, between Bob and the guys as well as between Bob and Donna (Winona Ryder: The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, Simone), the small-time D dealer he aches for who keeps him at arm’s length, underlies all their interactions till you’re left feeling as empty and miserable as they all do.

Much is being made of the fact that A Scanner Darkly is based on a novel by SF writer Philip K. Dick, from whose works films including Minority Report, Total Recall, Blade Runner, and others liberally borrowed concepts. But no film has ever approached replicating the leisurely mindfuck that is Dick’s writing the way that this one does. The mellow wavering of the rotoscope animation, in fact, gives the film an even greater sense of remove, an even more disturbing sense of disconnect than perhaps even Dick’s uneasy prose does. Way more William S. Burroughs than Arnold Schwarzenegger, this is not a film for those seeking escape, but for those seeking to examine escape from the outside.

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MPAA: rated R for drug and sexual content, language and a brief violent image

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb

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