Mania Grade: B
Maniac Grade: D+
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- Reviewed Format: Theatrical Release
- Rated: R
- Stars: Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey, Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder, Rory Cochrane
- Writer: Richard Linklater, based on the novel by Philip K. Dick
- Director: Richard Linklater
- Distributor: Warner Classics
A SCANNER DARKLY
Anti-drugs, anti-war-on-drugs near-future sci-fi comedy noir ...
By Rachel Reitsleff
July 12, 2006
Production Still from A SCANNER DARKLY
© Warner Classics
Technically, A SCANNER DARKLY is science fiction. After all, it takes place seven years from now (whenever "now" is), concerns an illegal drug that is fictional (though it does what plenty of real illegal drugs do), has a bit of police technology that doesn't exist in reality and has the genre pedigree of being based on a novel by Philip K. Dick. However, screenwriter/director Richard Linklater is less interested in the what-if aspects than in capturing the alternating friendly, funny and frustrating dynamics between the little group at the center of the film: Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), an undercover narcotics officer who has just been assigned to spy on himself his bosses don't know his real identity paranoid know-it-all James Barris (Robert Downey, Jr.), mellow Luckman (Woody Harrelson), almost permanently tripping Freck (Rory Cochrane) and Donna (Winona Ryder), the pretty dealer Arctor is involved with, despite her aversion to being touched.
There are some interesting issues about identity raised here, especially courtesy of one of SCANNER's most interesting visual effects, the "scramble suit" that changes the wearer's appearance every few seconds, rendering Arctor (and his boss) unrecognizable to all. It's a nice metaphor that's allowed to work on its own; the film doesn't beat us over the head with it. Likewise, the rotoscoping technique that captures every detail of the actors' performances yet renders them as animated characters serves to underscore Arctor's sense of detachment and slight remove from reality he comprehends what he's seeing, but somehow it has an artificial quality for him.
So far, so good. Linklater and his cast, who mesh beautifully, are fully into exploring the neurotic, sometimes sad, often very funny details of these people's lives. At its best, SCANNER is sometimes reminiscent of BOOGIE NIGHTS this is not by any means a wonderful world we've entered, but it's populated by people who are mostly good at heart and their own worst enemies. Threat of the law isn't going to steer them straight only experience (if anything) can do that.
The problem is that, in some fundamental way, SCANNER's musings on identity, observations about the chemically dependent life and playful verisimilitude in human interactions never come together in a fully cohesive whole. It's not that we can't follow the story Linklater lays out the pieces skillfully enough for us to track but rather that perhaps Bob as we come to know him doesn't have a firm enough identity for us to worry that he may lose it. We also get that both Linklater and Dick think the "war on drugs," at least as it's currently being conducted, is inefficient at best and hypocritical and deadly at best. Somehow, this notion gets diffused when put together with the movie's other elements, which also tend to suffer from isolation.
A SCANNER DARKLY is intriguing; what's sad is that we can see where it could have been compelling. It's intelligent and interesting filmmaking that nevertheless ripples with unfulfilled potential.