Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, like the Philip K Dick novel that inspired it, ends with a scroll of dedications to “people who were punished entirely too much for what they did.” “These were comrades I had; there are no better,” reads the writer’s citation. “They remain in my mind and the enemy will never be forgiven. The ‘enemy’ was their mistake in playing. Let them all play again and let them all be happy.” Begin credits; roll to fade.
The movie that precedes this epigraph would no doubt have pleased “Gaylene” or “Ray”, were they not both deceased. Or “Val” had she not suffered “massive permanent brain damage.” They may have been surprised, though, to see a movie so adult and intelligent about illegal addling with the senses – so in-tune and unfiltered when it comes to the nature of addiction. Linklater’s skewed sensibilities interlock lovingly with Dick’s paranoid sci-fry, creating the most curiously moving of perhaps any of the writer’s big-screen samplings (well, it beats the hell out of Paycheck). In using the “interpolated rotoscoping” technique (animation based on pre- filmed live footage) he employed on 2001’s Waking Life, Linklater has found the perfect form for the film’s woozy function: to sneak inside your cortex and sozzle your synapses. The compu-artists have conjured something visually quite astonishing – from the nightmarish “scramble suit” Keanu dons to camouflage his identity (its features morphing through a billion combinations like a photo album on speed dial) to the scuttling aphids Rory Cochrane’s Freck imagines infesting his body. Images like this come closest to evoking Dick’s screwy alt-universe with its all-pervasive surveillance and flickering levels of consciousness. The result is a darkly comic, deeply unsettling experience – a Robert Downey Jr blood test in celluloid form.
How fitting, then, that Downey is on hand as one of the strung-out deadbeats investigated by Keanu Reeves’ narc. Whether fuming against “albino, shape-shifting, lizard bitches”, ratting on his cohorts or pinching a mountain bike, he’s a fountain of energy to counteract the sometimes stately pace of Scanner’s altered state, as well as offering been-there, taken-that pathos.
How much you draw from this disorienting enterprise depends on your tolerance for drug-juiced verbiage and a narrative where no one’s identity can be established with any degree of certainty. But considering the way Hollywood asset-strips Dick’s prose for high-concept plots, it’s refreshing to see a director treat one of his works with such respect. A Scanner Darkly may be murky, but it deserves to be seen through.