Stoned babble and decomposing reality, A Scanner Darkly—Richard Linklater’s animated version of the 1977 novel by Philip K. Dick—is the most literal of Dick adaptations and also, in a perverse way, the most literary.
Dick, as tactfully pointed out by his Polish colleague Stanislaw Lem, was less a writer than a man cursed with prophetic sight who “does not so much play the part of a guide through his phantasmagoric worlds as he gives the impression of one lost in their labyrinth.” What’s extraordinary about Linklater’s animation, computer-rotoscoped in the fashion of his 2001 Waking Life, is just how tangible the Dickian labyrinth becomes.
Linklater renders coherent Dick’s amorphous account of SoCal dopers addicted to the brain-destroying Substance D, the narcs who police them, and the shadowy corporation stage-managing the seedy drama. This straightforward version of Dick’s anguished vision of drug-addled addiction makes Naked Lunch seem positively romantic. (Indeed, Linklater—or is it Dick?—even seems to be specifically mocking the “blue flower of romanticism.”) The skin-crawling opener has D-generate Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane) frantically fending off a plague of nonexistent aphids erupting out of his scalp; like the book, the movie ends with Dick’s dedication to his drug-casualty friends.
Animation allows Linklater to efface the distinction between hallucination and “reality,” as well as unmediated reality and video surveillance. Everything has the same somber palette and heavy outlines. Faces disintegrate into paint-by-numbers light patterns; interior planes shift and slide. The nominal hero, an undercover cop posing as one Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), is introduced addressing a businessmen’s lunch from the safety of an identity-blurring “scramble suit.” This shape-shifting outfit is made for animation and it’s also the movie’s ruling metaphor. Midspeech, the cop—who has, of course, been dabbling in the brain-fissuring D—snaps into his other personality.
Dick’s novel may be a morass of unplayable dialogue, but Linklater, who has been orchestrating spaced-out riffs since Slacker, has a connoisseur’s appreciation for druggy logic and crackpot conspiracy. At least half the movie involves Arctor rapping with his pals, motor-mouthed Barris (Robert Downey Jr.) and hysterical Luckman (Woody Harrelson), as well as their dealer Donna (Winona Ryder), whose source he is trying to ascertain. Most scenes are set in Arctor’s living room and the movie is characterized by superbly putrid crash pad mise-en-scéne—cigarette butts and dirty dishes on every surface, hand-scrawled signs (“Time to Thaw Walt Out,” “Just Keep Keeping On”) on the wall, an American flag stapled to the ceiling.
As an exercise in brain-fried absurdism, A Scanner Darkly is far darker than Dazed and Confused. The psychedelic stooges are perpetually paranoid while Donna, Arctor’s nominal girlfriend, is viscerally so. Recoiling from Arctor’s touch, she unconvincingly explains: “I have to watch it because I do so much coke.” The bizarrely conceited Barris, his mind in perpetual overdrive and ears ringing with “news from the guinea-pig grapevine,” has the best theories—even as Downey, who, having grasped that he’s playing a cartoon character, delivers the most animated performance. (Midway through 2006, this supporting turn is the performance to beat in what seems the year’s American movie to beat.)
It’s Luckman, however, who has the key bit of jabber, droning on ad nauseam about a celebrated impostor who decided that, rather than impersonating all manner of individuals, it would be far less taxing to simply impersonate a celebrated impostor. This inevitably brings up the subject of cops disguised as dopers and leads Arctor, through a stoned non sequitur, to ponder his own fissured situation: “Shit, I’m spaced—posing as a narc, wow!” Dick’s idea of a tragic modernist paradigm, Arctor is the character who suffers most acutely the loss of identity. (His name, realistically enough, sounds like “actor” on quaaludes.)
Once the D kicks in, Arctor is both beset by false memories and pathetically unaware of his current situation. He lives his junkie life and then goes to work to watch himself living it (hence the title), dutifully informing on his vegetative friends—at least one of whom is reporting on him to him. Arctor briefs his superior, each wearing a protective scramble suit; he’s only himself when submitting to the required psychological tests that, indicating cross-chatter between his brain’s two hemispheres, suggest he has no “self” at all.
After he no longer seems to realize that he is Arctor, nothing remains beyond a sad spiral through bogus rehab and meaningless group therapy. “Living and nonliving things are exchanging places,” someone, possibly the bugged-out Freck, explains. Speaking of the group: People will complain that A Scanner Darkly is hard to follow. True, there’s no use dropping bread crumbs in this maze. Just remember that everything in this grimly amusing world is its opposite—except, that is, when it’s not.