Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A Scanner Darkly

Originally Written and Posted at on 1/12/07 w/ Additional Edits & Revisions.

Based on the novel Philip K. Dick, A Scanner Darkly is the story about an undercover narcotics agent whose drug addiction has him unsure of his true identity as he is still investigating a series of drug-related crimes that he might be involved in. Written for the screen and directed by Richard Linklater, the film is a mixture of sci-fi and animation as it is presented with the surrealistic roto-scoping animated style that Linklater had done with 2001's Waking Life. Starring Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Winona Ryder, Woody Harrelson, and Rory Cochrane. A Scanner Darkly is a compelling yet provocative thriller from Richard Linklater

The film is set in 1994 in California where the war on drugs has been lost as drug addicts have become infatuated with a mysterious drug known as Substance D. Yet, it's effects have already become troubling as an addict named Charlie Freck (Rory Cochrane) is losing touch with reality as a narcotics agent named Fred (Keanu Reeves) is part of an undercover unit trying to investigate a series of drug-related crimes. Fred is also an addict as he often hangs out with a coke addict named Donna Hawthorne (Winona Ryder) and their friends Barris (Robert Downey Jr.) and Luckman (Woody Harrelson) who are also addicts. With Fred trying to find the drug dealer Bob Arctor, Fred is unaware of who he really is as things become more complicated during the investigation as paranoia ensues for those involved. Even as Fred and his circle of friends are becoming troubled where Fred's investigation starts to falter as he reports to his superior who later reveals his true identity to confirm the failure on the war on drugs.

While the film is really faithful to the novel and text of Philip K. Dick, it's not a perfect film largely due to the film's complex, high-brow plot where the themes of reality vs. fiction and the dark side of drugs definitely take on an intellectual level that audiences might not understand. That may be the film's flaw despite Linklater's observant, eerie direction which gives the film a strange, graphic-novel look and a sci-fi feel though it's set in 1994. Really, Linklater managed to be faithful to Dick's novel by using a lot of the dialogue from the book which is very provocative in its subject of drugs and paranoia. Still, the film is really about a man who becomes confused at his own identity in the role in the war against drugs while being surveyed in a world where he's being watched.

While Linklater's direction and script was unique in its faithfulness, Linklater and head animator Bob Sabiston created a look where a graphic novel comes to life with eerie, colorful animation from the rotoscoping technique. The animation is wonderfully superb to convey the paranoia and darkness of the world due to drugs with some hilarious moments that included Robert Downey Jr. being a bug. It's also a bit more adult due to language and some nudity where it adds a look of realism and surrealism. The result gives the animation and the entire film a hypnotic look where the film isn't boring despite its complex and confusing plot. The result is truly some of those most imaginable animation ever captured on film.

Cinematographer Shane F. Kelly does some wonderful photography and lighting designs to help give the sheer look of the animation which highlights the film's atmosphere. Production designer Bruce Curtis and set decorator Joaquin A. Morin do wonderful work in creating the messy, technological look of Bob's home as well as the eerie computer world of Fred's. Costume designer Kari Perkins definitely adds to the look of the 90s with baggy shorts and shirts plus flowing dresses for Winona Ryder. Longtime editor Sandra Adair does a wonderful job in bringing a nice pace to the suspense and rhythm that plays to the film's paranoia. Sound designers Justin Hennard and Tom Hammond plus Skip Lievsay do excellent work in the film's sound to the shifts of personalities and everything that goes on the world of Fred/Bob. Visual effects supervisor Richard Gordoa also does some great work in the animation from the shift of changes, notably in the scramble suits.

Music composer Graham Reynolds brings a plaintive, suspenseful score that is filled with harrowing arrangements in the orchestra while a lot of the music features the work of Radiohead. The cuts Radiohead bring are remixes to convey the sci-fi suspense of the film while a then-new track from Radiohead singer Thom Yorke appears from his album The Eraser.

The film's cast is filled with notable small performances from Angela Rawna and Chamblee Ferguson as the two psychiatrists who interrogate Fred, Lisa Marie Newmyer as Connie, Melody Chase as Bob's wife and the voices of Mark Turner as Hank and Sean Allen as Fred. Linklater regular Rory Cochrane gives a funny yet harrowing performance as Charlie Freck with his shaking and paranoia that conveys the sense of addiction at its worst. Cochrane really shines in a scene that is accompanied by a narration given by the voice of the late Philip K. Dick to play to the film's intellectual take on death. Woody Harrelson is very funny as the temperamental, cautious Ernie Luckman who is the antagonist of sorts against Barris. Harrelson brings a lot of laid-back humor and stoner realism as he is the perfect foil for Robert Downey Jr. Downey meanwhile, is hilarious in his role as the intellectual, jabbering James Barris as he steals every scene he's in. Downey also brings an intellectual complexity as a man who could be an informant or a suspect who's forced to tell things.

After an absence from films, Winona Ryder returns in what has to be her best performance since 1999's Girl, Interrupted. Ryder brings a layered performance as a fellow addict who is hiding something about her cocaine addiction while trying to understand the behavior of Bob Arctor. It's a different role from Ryder as she adds a fragility mixed in with a sexiness that hasn't been seen in a longtime as it is great to see her in a movie. Keanu Reeves gives an excellent yet understated performance as the dual role of Bob Arctor and Fred. Reeves brings the right touch of a man unaware of who he is and what role he serves. Reeves brings a surprising complexity as someone who is burnt out and tired where he only realizes that he's a pawn in the war against drugs. It's a fine performance from Reeves who, under the right director, can actually bring in a performance that is worth noting.

While not as superb as other Linklater films or Philip K. Dick adaptations like Blade Runner, A Scanner Darkly is still an intriguing yet hypnotic film from Richard Linklater and company. With a great cast, the film does have a lot of humor and performances that audiences can enjoy thought might be put off by some of the film's intellectual dialogue. Still, this is a film that should be worth noting as a nice introduction to the complex work of Philip K. Dick. In the end, A Scanner Darkly is an intense yet eerie film from Richard Linklater.

Richard Linklater Films: It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books - Slacker - Dazed & Confused - Before Sunrise - subUrbia - The Newton Boy - Waking Life - Tape - School of Rock - Before Sunset - Bad News Bears (2005 film) - Fast Food Nation - Me and Orson Welles - Bernie (2011 film) - Before Midnight - Boyhood - Everybody Want Some!! - The Auteurs #57: Richard Linklater Pt. 1 - Pt. 2

© thevoid99 2013


Dan Heaton said...

I've only seen A Scanner Darkly once, and I remember having mixed feelings when I left the theater. I was intrigued by the complex plot that you call out, yet felt cold to it at the same time. I didn't mind being confused since it was such a stunning visual film, yet something kept me at a distance. I really need to check it out again.

thevoid99 said...

It's a film that I'm eager to revisit soon as it was hard to grasp as it really had something much more in there.