A Scanner Darkly

The images are the first thing that grabs viewers when watching Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly.  Linklater (Bad News Bears, Before Sunset) used this type of animation known as rotoscoping before on Waking Life.  Rotoscoping is a slow, painstakingly detailed process where animation is traced over live action.  The results are often stunning, and allow for Linklater to do things not possible in an ordinary film, without turning things into a cartoon.  Waking Life used rotoscoping to turn philosophical flights of fancy into reality, while A Scanner Darkly, adapted by Linklater from Philip K. Dick's 1977 novel, uses it to bring to life paranoia and drug-induced delirium.

The movie takes place in the near future, when Substance D is the highly addictive drug of choice.  The government is trying to crack down on the epidemic, and cameras ensure that Big Brother is everywhere.  Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves, The Lake House, Constantine) works for the government, and wears something called a "scramble suit," a piece of clothing that completely covers him.  It masks his identify and his voice, rendering him unrecognizable.  This appears on screen as a constantly shifting image consisting of what may be hundreds of people.  Arctor is undercover at his own house, where he lives with James Barris (Robert Downey Jr., The Shaggy Dog, Good Night and Good Luck), Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane, Hart's War, Southlander) and Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson, A Prairie Home Companion, North Country).  All three are using D, but it is affecting Arctor the most.  He is also dating dealer Donna Hawthorne (Winona Ryder, S1m0ne, Mr. Deeds), and is trying to figure out who her source is.

It sounds straightforward, but Linklater is not interested in making the story easy to decipher.  The basic plot takes a while to coalesce, hidden behind a web of confusion on the part of the Arctor character.  Arctor realizes that the government is sending him to spy on himself.  Meanwhile, Barris is trying to turn in Arctor, and creating a tense sense of paranoia all around.  Arctor stumbles around, not sure if he is in control or being controlled by something else (drugs or otherwise).  A Scanner Darkly doesn't pay off until the end, when Linklater brings everything together.  Reaching that point may be more than some are willing to sit through, as much of the film seems to meander idly.  This is purposeful, to give the viewer a sense of the confusion that Arctor is feeling.

Nevertheless, the look of A Scanner Darkly is enough to make it worth sitting through.  Images are never constant, and things are always shifting.  One gets the sense that this is the way that Arctor and his drug-addled friends may be viewing the world around them.  There's a creepy scene at the beginning where Freck imagines that bugs are crawling all over him.  The rotoscoping allows a bit of artistic license on the actors without making them look unrecognizable.  Reeves, and his laid-back persona (or what some call lack of emotion and acting ability) is a good fit for Arctor.  And, the world of A Scanner Darkly is only seven years ahead of the present.  It looks and feels familiar, but the Orwellian overtones of Dick and Linklater seem a bit out of reach, but in the end, who can really say?

Mongoose Rates It: Not Bad.
1 hour, 40 minutes, Rated R for drug and sexual content, language, and a brief violent image

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