A Scanner Darkly (2006)
[A severely abridged version of this review was previously published at Christianity Today, and it did not end up representing the perspective I presented in my original draft. Here is the original, unabridged review.]
In Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, Keanu Reeves plays “Agent Fred,” an undercover officer in America’s war on drugs. He’s so deeply undercover that he’s become a drug addict himself, losing touch with reality. So the irony is painful when Agent Fred is ordered to focus his investigation on one junkie in particular … himself.
Sound a bit familiar? Like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly is based on the science fiction of Philip K. Dick. All three introduce us to law enforcement officers who begin by tracking criminals and end up running from the law, dismayed at what they’re learning about themselves.
But where Blade Runner and Minority Report borrowed the main ideas and added all kinds of violence and thrills, Linklater’s movie is actually faithful to Dick’s novel. A Scanner Darkly is true to Dick’s disillusioned, drug-addled, deadbeat characters. It’s a much more thoughtful film — challenging, meditative, and sad, just the way Dick intended it.
Scanner focuses on the small Anaheim community in which Agent Fred pretends to be a dealer. His “friends” are mopey slackers, tormented by the distortions brought on by a cruel, enslaving drug called “Substance D.” (The “D” may stand for death, disintegration, or despair.) “You’re either on it,” says addict James Barris, “or you haven’t tried it.”
As his brain reels with foolish fantasies, Barris (Robert Downey Jr.) lectures others on things he knows nothing about — guns, the chemistry of narcotics, and government conspiracies. He has a captive audience. Wide-eyed and paranoid, Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson) is a typical southern California stoner, prone to freaking out. But Luckman is stable compared to Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane). Freck is a wreck who resembles The Lord of the Rings’ Gollum in his fits of twitching and terror. In the opening scene, he obsessively scrubs himself and his dog, convinced that they’re both besieged by giant aphids.
The guys are attracted to Donna Hawthorne, the sexy girlfriend of their house-mate Bob Arctor. But Donna (Winona Ryder, in a welcome return to intelligent moviemaking) responds to Substance D by loathing the thought of physical intimacy. This drives Bob crazy. Unable to consummate his relationship with Donna, he uses drugs to buy sex with someone else, which leads to even nastier surprises.
What the group doesn’t know is that their friend Bob is actually Agent Fred. Behind their backs, Fred is documenting their crimes with elaborate surveillance equipment.
But the drugs are tearing Fred’s endeavors apart. The two hemispheres of his brain are fighting with each other, troubling his sense of identity. Is he really a cop pretending to be a dealer? Or is he a dealer who excuses his habit by posing as a cop?
To give audiences a palpable sense of Fred’s delusion, Linklater uses the same style of animation that made his earlier film Waking Life so hypnotic. Animators “paint” over footage of the actors’ performances, using an innovative computer process called “rotoscoping.” In this way, these cartoon characters become hauntingly lifelike, preserving real movements, gestures, expressions, even scenery. Their outlines are unstable, and so is their environment, keeping us caught in a constant state of questioning the film’s “reality,” just as its characters do. It’s like living in a Kafka nightmare — a person chatting in your living room might suddenly transform into a cockroach.
The animators’ greatest accomplishment is the realization of the “scramble suits” — the agent’s full-body disguises. Made from an electrical fabric, conglomerations of human features mix and match on their surface, disguising the wearer with a random collage of races, ages, hairstyles, and outfits. This gives the agents anonymity at the office, protecting their operations. The scramble suits made Dick’s novel unfilmable for decades. Through Linklater’s technique, they’re astonishing.
And they’re more than just a special effect. The suits make us think about ways in which people are pressured to meet society’s shifting expectations, or how they lose their individuality by conforming to “the system.” And they suggest that any agent of authority may conceal secret agendas within the “costume” of duty.
Truly scrambled, Agent Fred becomes increasingly suspicious of his employers. Could it be that the government actually benefits from this epidemic of addiction? After all, it’s easy to manipulate a nation of apathetic zombies.
Published in 1977, reflecting the drug culture of his day, Dick’s book is remarkably relevant to current events. He imagined a futuristic 1994, and many of his predictions were close to the mark. Newspapers report that governments are using powers of surveillance to monitor their own people. And drugs — prescription medication and illegal imports — continue to wreak havoc on young minds. Media, the Internet, and a proliferation of technological distractions are cultivating generations of naïve, isolated, self-indulgent, and easily manipulated individuals. And it’s increasingly difficult to sort out which politicians, leaders, and news sources can be trusted. Meanwhile, we’re bombarded by those who compete to sell us the latest salve for our frustrations.
Thus, Scanner works as a relevant and timely parable.
And yet, it’s rather difficult to sit through. As in the novel, Barris, Luckman, Freck, Hawthorne, and Arctor’s meandering conversations occasionally amuse. One hilarious sequence involves an argument over whether a bicycle has eight or twelve speeds. Viewers may find themselves growing weary of these verbose, dysfunctional fools.
As a result, this reviewer ended up “double-minded” about Linklater’s film:
Voice 1: “Nobody makes better movies about slackers and the search for meaning.”
Voice 2: “Well, yes, Linklater’s a fine director when he has an engaging subject, like a romance between charismatic characters (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset), or a hilarious comedy (The School of Rock, Dazed and Confused). But Scanner’s characters are somnambulistic and maddening. It’s a bore.”
Voice 1: “But the animation is fantastic! And this is Keanu Reeves’ best role since, well, the first time he played a delusional stoner — Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.”
Voice 2: “Still, the story just isn’t suspenseful. Stories about cops don’t have to be action-adventure, but I feel like a good premise gets squandered here. ”
Voice 1: “Scanner isn’t supposed to be a thriller. It’s a eulogy for Dick’s despairing generation. It’s a desperate search for mercy and hope.”
Voice 2: “Sure, it meant a lot to him. But to us? These guys are miserable company!”
As I argued with myself, I realized that my frustrations were not entirely the fault of the film. In part, I was hoping to be dazzled by summertime thrills. Thus, I became impatient with such a truthful portrayal of human frailty and folly.
Linklater admirably honors Dick’s convictions, giving us a sense of the author’s broken heart. Dick struggled with drugs himself. He knew his own weakness, and thus he had a deep sympathy for his friends who were worse off. This is a movie that may help despairing people see themselves in the mirror, and draw back from the abyss. It may caution people about the dangers of drugs. And it may sensitize others to the suffering and emptiness that turns lost souls into junkies.
And if I’m honest, I must admit that I can relate to these characters. I’ve never experimented with drugs, I know what it’s like to become frustrated with the world and with myself. I’ve been a double-minded man. I’ve done my share of blaming society for my own mistakes. It’s much easier to drown my woes in shallow distractions than it is show discipline and dedicate myself to making a difference.
Gradually, Agent Fred sees the limitations of government surveillance. And he fears that no human being can see things clearly enough to save them from themselves, much less save the world.
“What does a scanner see?” he asks. “Does a scanner see into me — into us — clearly or darkly? I hope it [sees clearly] … because I can’t any longer these days see into myself.” And he concludes, “If the scanner sees only darkly, the way I myself do, then we are cursed … and we’ll wind up dead this way, knowing very little and getting that little fragment wrong too.”
These lines contain a deliberate and revealing reference to 1 Corinthians 13:12: We currently see “through a glass darkly,” and our own faulty understanding fails us. Our hopes lie not in our capacity to solve these mysteries, thank God, but in the grace of the Maker who sees all things clearly, who loves even drug addicts unconditionally, and who promises to raise us up out of our ruined state.