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Overall Rating

Awesome: 29.03%
Worth A Look: 20.97%
Pretty Bad: 1.61%
Total Crap: 4.84%

6 reviews, 26 user ratings

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Scanner Darkly, A
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by Erik Childress

"This Is Precisely Why I Don’t Get High"
4 stars

Stereotypically, there are two types who get high. There are the ones who allow the drug to expand their mind and open up the knowledge they believe they have to spout theories that would get them an “A” in Philosophy class. Then there are those who just get loaded and end up founding Happy Madison Productions. Richard Linklater is more akin to that first group – as certainly witnessed with the uber-pretentious Waking Life, a theoretical and animated gabfest which instead of inspiring had less-enthused audiences looking for a ledge. Linklater has been on a bit of a roll since that monstrosity and is now rolling the dice again utilizing the same animation style and the preachiest of sci-fi author Philip K. Dick’s mindbenders. The result is far more successful, inordinately more entertaining and will leave you out on a different sort of ledge.

Set “seven years from now” the government is still fighting the drug war, keeping tabs on all its citizens through cameras placed throughout the cities (and not just at traffic lights and tollbooths.) Keanu Reeves plays “Fred”, his codename as an undercover narc. Where society has evolved, paranoia is at an all-time high (and not just from the drugs) so even Orange County’s finest must protect their identities in the office by wearing suits which scramble their appearance to the pace of the Press-Your-Luck board. Under his street name, Bob Arctor, “Fred” shares a house with technology-savvy Barris (Robert Downey Jr.) and absolute stoner, Luckman (Woody Harrelson). They occasionally get visits from a more advanced user, Freck (Rory Cochrane), who in an opening scene visualizes the same kind of agitation Cosmo Kramer experiences after not having a decent shower. Their drug of choice is known as Substance D and their supplier is Donna (Winona Ryder), another user whom Bob is kinda sweet on and may be the lead to the drug’s origin.

Things take a bizarre turn when “Fred” is assigned to spy on a new target. Bob Arctor. Cameras are on hand throughout the house for him to watch his roomies as this becomes a sly comment on government agencies unwilling or unable to share information with each other. Complicating matters are the effects of the drug. This red pill doesn’t take anyone out of the Matrix, but still causes the brain’s hemispheres to work independently forming its own brand of schizophrenia. While he denies the symptoms over a series of ludicrously inconclusive tests by the doctors, “Fred” may just be looking Bob as a separate being and is confused in more ways than one when he hears him backtracking about “posing as a narc.”

A Scanner Darkly is very much like the drug which inhabits it; splitting its own persona from paranoid druggie comedy to the sharp spiral of the addictive effects and the hopeless, misguided attempts to end it all. The scenes of pharmacologically-induced banter between Reeves, Downey and Harrelson are invaluable, each one more astutely crafted than the prior. From the breakdown of a bicycle’s worth to the testing of a home invasion system which may or may not include a written invitation for the intruder to enter, the three actors are having a ball trying to rationalize each other’s rationale and Downey particularly is off the charts. Casting Harrelson and Downey in these roles, both known for their under-the-counter activities, is inspired in its bravado while also casting a dark light on where this is all headed.

Reeves’ Fred/Bob Arctor is an intriguing paradox. From the moment we first meet him, hidden within the altering bodysuit, he is already having doubts about his mission; which he apparently gave up a happy suburban life (complete with wife and kids) to join up for. He is told what to say, but goes off script wondering about the effectiveness of this method. Isn’t there any freedom in a citizen’s drug of choice or compassion for those considered criminals instead of simply ill? Are these the effects of Substance D or a free-thinking individual speaking out against the system? Was there ever a wife and kids or is just one of his hemispheres fantasizing for the good life or justifying the importance of his existence? How can a cognitive test produce “many wrong answers and only one right answer” when that shape sure looked like a sheep to me, too? There’s a lot to digest in Arctor’s journey to where a second viewing can clarify just how far his break has occurred and how soon.

As someone who has prescribed myself to a no-drug policy all my life, I always found the characters in Linklater’s Dazed and Confused to be childish jackasses who wouldn’t conform to a perfectly reasonable contract of keeping extravagant quantities of foreign substances out of their bodies during football season. Yes, I get the whole “rebel against The Man” shtick, but to do that there has to be a reasonable rift between what’s being asked and what you’re expected to give up. A Scanner Darkly, in many respects, does carry the same message – that “playing the game” is in the hands of the individual and no higher power should be able to stop them. But then it goes further into the effects of ignoring the rules and trying to cheat your way to winning happiness.

Arctor’s drastic spiral towards the drug’s abyss does come at a price for the viewer during their own first trip through the narrative. The bulk of questions you may have about his possible mental break and the full extent of the mission he’s been assigned is enough to keep even the most sober of viewers scrambling to make sense of it all. Hard to fault a film which is its own brand of drug trip that has more in common with Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas than the merciless warning of Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. Like Traffic it’s an indictment on the circular consequences of a Drug War with an ending full of irony and sadness that can be appreciated by the philosophical users out there and a harsh reality for those exploiting it for fun or just a big game.

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originally posted: 07/07/06 12:25:56
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2006 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

2/21/17 morris campbell visionary but very overrated 1 stars
1/10/10 Jeff Wilder Stylistically well-done with some genuine substance 4 stars
11/22/08 Shaun Wallner Thought this was a good film. 3 stars
8/31/08 Scarlet Keanu can act; RDJ steals the film, and thank God he's back 5 stars
5/08/07 hedd Love the book and this was better than expected 4 stars
4/25/07 Dude amazing 5 stars
2/19/07 Mia One word to describe it - bland. Reeves not at his best, & generally poor quality. 1 stars
2/02/07 Indrid Cold Don't see what the point of the rotoscoping is. Most of the plot is pointless too. 3 stars
12/15/06 Donny Martwick Its Awww right. 4 stars
12/09/06 kaz FINALLY in Oz!! Witty,sad & thoughtprovoking.. 5 stars
11/11/06 matt Enjoyable, but difficult to understand 4 stars
10/19/06 Joan Montserrat Very faithful to Dick, a unique movie that makes no cheap concessions and strikes for deep 5 stars
8/21/06 Adam This film was a lot deeper than I suspected. I really enjoyed it. Very true to addiction. 5 stars
8/08/06 gemma depicts overall a druguser comprehension 4 stars
8/06/06 jcjs so fine, mnd blower, go on weed helps too, just splendid right on, wowsa wowsa wowsa 5 stars
7/25/06 Mortis Faithful to PDK, excellent performance by all actors, A must see 5 stars
7/24/06 shane swank more faithful to Dick than others yet not quite there yet. despite flaws its relevant today 4 stars
7/24/06 malcolm interesting for about 20 minutes 2 stars
7/21/06 Agent Sands Much better than Waking Life. Downey and Harrelson are the highlights. 4 stars
7/17/06 Ronald Pottol very glad I saw it 5 stars
7/16/06 ogaga efevberha fantastic and really inspiring 5 stars
7/15/06 zeitgeist FINALLY a good PKD adaptation. Humorous, metaphorical...Brilliant. 5 stars
6/13/06 Kelly Garcia I am a fan of the book. Fantastic adaptation. Smart, funny, timely! 5 stars
6/11/06 San Lamar wait for dvd 3 stars
5/21/06 John Deere It's the 1978 "Lord of the Rings" all over again. Awesome. 5 stars
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  07-Jul-2006 (R)
  DVD: 19-Dec-2006



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