"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Monday, December 11, 2006

Dark look into underground
Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

A Scanner Darkly

2.5 stars out of five

Dir Richard Linklater

Cast: Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Winona Ryder

Paranoia, betrayal, dependence and confused identities are not exactly standard themes for an animated film, but then not even the animation is standard in director Richard Linklater's adaptation of sci-fi noir author Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly.

The film was made using an animation technique known as digital rotoscoping that allows animators to essentially trace and overlay photographic images with digital graphics, resulting in an impressionistic film in which characters look and move like real people, but with the altered perspective of the filmmaker superimposed.

Set in the near future, the film follows an undercover narcotics officer codenamed Fred (Keanu Reeves) who is assigned to investigate suspected drug dealer Bob Arctor. Undercover police agents in this world are fully undercover, their true identities concealed even from their coworkers and superiors through the use of a so-called scramble suit worn at the police station that completely masks their appearance and voice. Arctor is suspected of dealing in the pernicious and highly addictive substance D, a drug that gradually splits the user's mind into multiple personalities.

We quickly realize that Fred and Arctor are the same person, but what isn't clear is whether Arctor is posing as a Fred or vice versa, or whether either is aware of his link to the other.

Aside from a few twists and turns, the story follows Fred/Arctor and his friends through their descent into further drug addiction and eventual attempts at redemption. The narrative often takes a backseat to dialog-heavy set pieces revolving around urban legends, low humor and drug-induced obsession and paranoia. While the set pieces are often amusing or sad, they slow the pace of the story to a glacial crawl.

In a stroke of obvious but effective casting, noted Hollywood druggies Woody Harrelson and Robert Downey Jr. play Arctor's housemates, with Harrelson's dopey hippie an ideal comic foil for the fast-talking, occasionally sinister character played by Downey. Where Harrelson's character is generally just spaced out, Downey's is more mischievous and conspiracy-minded. One funny scene in the film has him convincing another character that he can make cocaine out of Solarcaine sunburn spray.

Downey's performance is definitely a bright spot in the film, as is that of Rory Cochrane, best known for his turn as a conspiracy buff in Linklater's Dazed and Confused and his work on the various CSI television programs. The less said about the wooden Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder, the better, though Reeves' lack of affect does give the character the sort of blankness that can pass for confusion over his true identity.

While there are a number of laughs in the film, most of them courtesy of Downey, the overall tone is fittingly very dark as we watch the main characters spiral down into madness, desperation and even suicide.

Linklater made good use of rotoscoping to convey a sort of cinematic version of magic realism in his 2001 film Waking Life and it serves him well here, allowing him to show the jangled, stuttering and occasionally hallucinatory point of view of the main characters as they slide in and out of drug-induced psychosis. While occasionally distracting, the effect is key to the overall atmosphere of the film.

Unsuspecting fans of animation, science fiction and Keanu Reeves should be forewarned that this is a film with an important message.

At its heart, A Scanner Darkly is a plea for a more forgiving and humanitarian approach to drug addiction. In an epilogue to the novel reproduced at the end of the film, Dick wrote: "This has been a novel about some people who were punished entirely too much for what they did. They wanted to have a good time, but they were like children playing in the street; they could see one after another of them being killed--run over, maimed, destroyed--but they continued to play anyhow."

Linklater has taken a book that is clearly dear to his heart and rewritten it for the screen, probably with the foreknowledge that it would be difficult to translate the novel into a film, but he did it anyhow, because sometimes the message is more important than the medium.

1 comment:

Scout said...

well done review! i just don't go to the movies anymore so this wouldn't entice me , but in the future it is perhaps, a video rental just to check out how the important message is delivered.