As he did with his stream-of-semi-consciousness Waking Life, Linklater has shot the film in real life and then applied the techniques of ‘interpolated-rotoscoping’ to the results, making Scanner Darkly into a kind of demonic cartoon, a constantly shifting, ethereal presentation that connects with the films themes of disorientation, identity loss and hallucination. Set in the sprawling Californian exurbs ‘seven years from now’, the film opens with one of its strongest scenes, as Freck (Rory Cochrane), a junkie addicted to Substance D, wakes to find he is covered in monstrous insects that might or might not be crawling under his skin. Unnerved, he hightails it to the oracle Barris (Robert Downey Jr), a talkative, similarly addicted know-it-all, who dispenses cracked advice from the sofa in the doss house he shares with Ernie (Woody Harrelson) and Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves). They are all addicted to the same drug, marking time through popping pills and amusing themselves with garbled conversations and conspiracies. Arctor, though, is not what he seems. Not only is he a drug addict, in a relationship with a dealer Donna (Winona Ryder), but he is also an undercover policeman, assigned to infiltrate this zoned-out gang and remove the threat of Substance D from the streets. Arctor though has turned, and despite wearing a ‘scramble suit’, a constantly shifting human appearance projected onto a holographic outfit that gives him a sealed, protected environment to work in. Arctor is both operator and subject of a massive government surveillance network, a grid of phone-taps, satellite cameras and spies that matches the sprawl of housing estates, roads and blank office buildings in which he operates. There are references throughout to Dick’s other fiction, and the film even boasts an appearance from the writer as one of the multitude of images in the scramble suit. The shaggy, mad-looking one.
Although it might appear straightforward enough when laid out in synopsis, Scanner Darkly turns constantly, adding layers of deception and deceit onto its mobile surface, a whirlpool of interconnected relationships made even messier when we discover that Arctor is spying on himself and that Barris has turned informant, believing his friend to be a terrorist recruiter. Arctor is nearing the end of the road, the regime of drug addiction and the strain of his double life precipitating a breakdown, one that leads him to another sealed environment, a meadow full of flowers and a lobotomized life as a farm worker. The whacked-out environment and the surface gloss of animation makes it more difficult for the actor’s performances to make a deep connection, but Reeves in particular does extremely well, blank and monotone as we have come to expect, but full of emotion and despair as he moves inexorably to his own psychic breakdown, without the softening touch a note of hope would allow. The film calls for Reeves to deliver whole chunks of Dick’s precise, maddening prose in a dreamy voiceover, an insight into his interior descent as powerful as his outward decline. Downey Jr, Harrelson and Ryder have all, interestingly, had their own well-publicised drug addictions, lending some real-life weight to their anxious roles, even if Downey Jr plays Barris for laughs, Harrelson does an easy surf-bum and Ryder floats moodily through the piece, as if she is someone else, somewhere else. And perhaps, according to the noir-influenced Dick, she is. Linklater has taken the best of the source novel and compressed it into a unique and overwhelming film, as paranoid and unhinged as any of Dick’s work, but one with the directors own stamp of authorship applied, making it as close to a dead-cert cult-hit as anything we’ll see this summer. Profoundly pessimistic, immediately relevant and as dark and stark as its title suggests, Scanner Darkly, which ends with a scrawl of Dick’s LSD casualty friends over the closing credits, is a perplexing, ethereal film that offers as much immediate, satisfying entertainment as it does food for thought later.