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A Scanner Darkly

By Greg Stinson

Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey, Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder
Directed by Richard Linklater
Rated R

The slow unraveling of simple reason and normal thought through the increasingly heavy dosage of a powerfully addictive narcotic is the primary subject of Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly.

The film, based on a novel by Philip K. Dick, is filmed in Rotoscope, an animation technique that uses live action film as its base. The result is a vision that looks like watercolor and is perpetually in motion. The growing neurosis and addictive obsessions of the main characters are more vividly conveyed in this world of bright colors and unreal textures.

Keanu Reeves plays Robert Arcter, a man hooked on Substance D and an undercover drug agent working for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. His true identity disguised by a suit that perpetually rotates its appearance from even his superiors, his growing mental confusion is compounded when his next assignment is to gather evidence on himself.

His cohorts in substance abuse include an annoyingly gabby but darkly comedic Robert Downey Jr., an innocent but dopey Woody Harrelson and Winona Ryder, who plays Arcter’s girlfriend, but has extreme intimacy issues.

Dick’s work was originally a scribe lamenting the loss of some of his deepest friends to drug abuse, while exploring the abyss of drug addiction in its late, deadly stages. Linklater has successfully realized Dick’s vision, and he even includes Dick’s literary pronouncements at the conclusion of the film.

Funny, confusing and very dark, A Scanner Darkly offers a gritty, realistic portrayal of the slow mental erosion from narcotics.
While the addicts behave in often comedic ways that are sure to entertain the frat boy set, the implications and origins of these behaviors are darkly disturbing.
To compound the hopelessness of the plight, Linklater shows us the sinister side of corporate-financed treatment centers when greed and profits are involved. The more addicts there are, the bigger the bottom line. This point strikes the viewer mercilessly.
The film is frightening in its literal comparisons to very real addictive dangers such as crack and methamphetamine. As Downey’s character quips, “You’re either hooked on Substance D or you’ve never tried it.” It is that reality of the ease of self-destruction in today’s modern world that is the engine for this film.

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