Robert Downey Jr
Despite his avowed hatred of Hollywood during his own lifetime, ever since his death, cult SF author (and prodigious drug-user) Philip Kindred Dick has been resurrected time and again in celluloid form – even if his mind-expanding fictions have rarely survived their transition to the big screen entirely intact.
Certainly Blade Runner (1982) and Minority Report (2002) were estimable pieces of cinema in their own right, and Total Recall (1990), Screamers (1995), Paycheck (2003) and Impostor (2002) were at least passable time-fillers – but no Dickian adaptation has been either so true to its source, or so headspinningly great, as Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, based on the 1977 novel of the same name.
Seven years from now, Anaheim, California. Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane) has (as they say in Blade Runner) an itch he just can’t scratch. His apartment is infested with bugs, which are swarming all over both him and his dog. He traps a particularly large specimen in a jar, and heads off to show it to his friend James Barris (Robert Downey Jr) – but on the way, after a violent encounter with a policeman that turns out to be just a vivid hallucination, Freck glances at the bug-jar and realises that there is nothing in it.
Later, Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson) and Donna Hawthorne (Winona Ryder) all attempt to work out whether or not Barris has stolen the bicycle which he is now presenting to them, but in their drug-addled confusion they are quickly sidetracked by the question of how many gears the bike has – a question that none of them is in any state to answer accurately. “We are all way too close to this”, comments Barris, before suggesting that they should seek out a more “objective viewpoint”.
Yet in the unstable world of A Scanner Darkly, where identities blur and realities shift under the constant influence of mind-altering substances, all the distorted layerings of perspective leave little room for an objective viewpoint. Even the protagonist Bob Arctor, who is a deep-cover operative assigned by the County Drug Agency to infiltrate the circle of his user ‘friends’, has little grip on reality. For although in his efforts to follow the supply source of the new brain-splitting drug known as ‘Substance D’ he spends half his time at a ‘scanner’ console reviewing secret surveillance footage of himself and his companions engaged in hilariously clueless, endlessly circular conversations, his own heavy use of the drug makes him a most unreliable detective.
Arctor, whose true identity is concealed from his Agency handler by a high-tech ‘scramble suit’, soon finds himself ordered to investigate himself as the prime suspect in the Substance D supply chain – but instead of racing to cover his own tracks like the similarly compromised protagonists of No Way Out and Infernal Affairs, our ‘scrambled’ agent struggles even to remember that he and Arctor are the same person. Staring ‘through a scanner darkly’ at his own image, Arctor neither understands, nor indeed likes, what he sees of the life rapidly fragmenting before him. Only his love for his supplier Donna, herself a legendary cokehead, gives him any hope, even if he is no longer sure of the precise nature of their sex-free relationship.
Like Linklater’s earlier Waking Life (2001), A Scanner Darkly uses ‘interpolated rotoscoping’, a method of image manipulation whereby conventionally shot footage is digitally repainted.
The results, inhabiting a space somewhere between live-action and animation, are undoubtedly stunning to look at, but they also serve economically to reflect the characters’ altered states of perception, where reality, hallucinations and dreams all form a fluid continuum. Although the film offers one reality-checking twist after another, Arctor does not so much come gradually into focus as dissolve and disintegrate before our eyes, until in the end it is unclear whether he is an agent pretending to be a “total dope fiend” or a user posing as a narc, whether his flashbacks to an earlier, more ‘normal’ life with a wife and two children are memory or fantasy, and indeed whether his entire involvement with the Agency is for real or just the dissociative delusion of a pharmaceutical burn-out.
Towards the film’s grim finale, one character wonders whether anyone will ever truly know what Arctor has done, or whether he will be more than just “a footnote in a history book”. By the end most viewers too will be left unsure what has ‘actually’ happened to Arctor (and this is a film that makes no concessions to an audience looking for pat resolutions, let alone happy ones) – but then, exactly like Dick’s novel, the film closes with a historical ‘footnote’ that contains within it the harrowing reality that the rest of the film has so carefully cloaked.
For, tracing a path from manic loser comedy to devastating tragedy, A Scanner Darkly employs genre elements (chiefly film noir and science fiction) as part of its own undercover disguise. These are (or at least may be) the wild hallucinogenic imaginings of Philip K. Dick himself as much as of his alter ego Arctor, both struggling to see clearly the irreparable damage done to themselves and others by long-term drug abuse.
Like Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream and Jonas kerlund’s Spun all rolled into one dystopian paranoid thriller, A Scanner Darkly anatomises addiction in all its highs and lows, and offers a dignified elegy for its misguided casualties. Add to this the mind-bendingly intricate plotting, casting that cleverly exploits the various players’ drug-related rap sheets, inventively funny stoner dialogue, and a career-topping performance by Robert Downey Jr as the mercurial, menacing Barris, and you have the finest film by far to have surfaced all year.
It is a trip well worth taking, just so long as you can keep your head straight for the duration.