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With: Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Robert Downey, Jr., Woody Harrelson
Written by: Richard Linklater, based on a novel by Philip K. Dick
Directed by: Richard LInklater
MPAA Rating: R for drug and sexual content, language and a brief violent image
Running Time: 100
Date: 05/25/2006

A Scanner Darkly (2006)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Drug War Cowboys

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly does proud the tradition of cultish movies adapted from Philip K. Dick stories.

Most of these, such as Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982), Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall (1990), Gary Fleder's Impostor (2002) and John Woo's Paycheck (2003) were instantly underrated upon release, and A Scanner Darkly is likely to join them. (Only Steven Spielberg's Minority Report, from 2002, hit the right combo of sci-fi smarts and audience appeal.)

Like the others, A Scanner Darkly takes place in an uncertain future. But unlike the others, it dials down the flying cars and replicating machines in favor of more human foibles -- namely, drugs.

In Dick's increasingly violent and impersonal world, people turn toward the euphoric comfort provided by dangerous substances. And of course, there are always those unscrupulous souls willing to capitalize on this need with ever more potent and addictive highs.

Keanu Reeves stars in the film as Bob Arctor, who works undercover as a narc named "Fred." When posing as "Fred," Bob must wear a special suit that resists all identity scanners; it's a patchwork of constantly phasing bits from different people, ears, eyes, lips, shirts, ties, etc.

Linklater has cleverly avoided an FX extravaganza here by recreating the groundbreaking digital animation technique introduced in his masterpiece Waking Life (2001). He simply films the events on a digital camera, and then animators go over the pictures with drawings, adding enhancements when necessary.

For example, the movie opens on Freck (Rory Cochrane), a user of the latest illegal vice, "Substance D." Freck wakes one morning to find himself covered with aphids. No matter how hard he pats, scrapes and scrubs, they continue to skitter all over him. No doubt Cochrane, who previously worked with Linklater in Dazed and Confused (1993), simply had to brush and squirm, and the animators provided the aphids.

In any case, "Fred" is assigned to keep an eye on... himself, as well as his two roommates, Barris (Robert Downey Jr.) and Luckman (Woody Harrelson). Bob is more or less dating Donna (Winona Ryder), a fellow junkie, who doesn't like to be touched. These layabouts occupy a run-down Anaheim house complete with a shopping cart full of trash in the front yard. The authorities suspect "Fred" of being one of the slackers frequenting the house, but they're not sure which. And so Bob hangs around, and then goes to work and watches tapes of himself hanging around.

The friends don't do much except take drugs and toss around conspiracy theories, such as when the accelerator of their car gets stuck while speeding along the freeway. Who did it? How and why? Are the perpetrators ransacking their house as they speak? Are they planting drugs?

Linklater brilliantly uses his animated atmosphere to enhance the story's paranoia. A doctor tells Bob that his use of "Substance D" is splitting the two sides of his brain, causing them to send conflicting signals. We can't trust our own eyes anymore than Bob can trust his. When Barris and Luckman suddenly turn into bugs, is it in Bob's head or is something else going on? What about when a call girl suddenly turns into Donna? Of course, Bob has no idea what's really going on and various characters are not exactly as they seem.

In other Dick adaptations, the twists were simply handed to the audience on a silver platter (Minority Report, the 1982 version of Blade Runner), and in others, the twist was often tricky or vague (Total Recall, the 1992 version of Blade Runner).

Linklater handles this complex storytelling in a straightforward manner, assuming that the audience can follow his lead without pandering or playing tricks. He's a brainy filmmaker whose best films (Slacker, Waking Life, Before Sunset) rely on smart talk. But rather than simply filming a series of talking heads, his visual schemes -- long takes, poetic tableaus -- usually support his dialogue, making it more dynamic.

And so A Scanner Darkly may seem lower-key and more muted than the other Dick films but what it lacks in punchy thrills, it makes up for in pure, queasy sensation.

Indeed, it belongs in the great tradition of hallucinogenic drug films like Roger Corman's The Trip (1967), David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch (1991) and Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998); films that throw caution to the wind and create an excitingly loose, inventive narrative flow.

Linklater's film walks a thin line, however, falling just a smidgeon too close to dour, like a woozy hangover. He may have been just a bit too faithful to Dick to provide the looseness the movie needed.

However, he has done well with his casting. Even in animated form, Downey is masterfully uncontainable, throwing all manner of walks, gestures and throwaway line deliveries. Harrelson is equally unpredictable, and Ryder continues to erode her "sweet young thing" persona with her skittish turn. As evidenced by The Lake House, Reeves has grown comfortable enough in front of the camera to establish himself as one of our most commanding leading men right now (notwithstanding duds like The Matrix Revolutions).

Overall, Linklater has made a film to ponder and -- for those with a high tolerance -- to revisit. And for aiming that high, if for nothing else, it blows away every other summer film this year.

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