When Richard Linklater made "Slacker" 15 years ago, he filled it with characters living in the margins of American society. Losers and crackpots by mainstream standards, they were nonetheless quite industrious when it came to questioning, doubting and worrying about the relationship between average people and the forces of government, celebrity culture and other shadowy monoliths. These characters were recognizable enough to make the movie an instant cult hit, yet neglected enough to require a catchy new nomenclature. Familiar to anyone who has lived in a college town, or the "arty" section of a big city, or a middle-class outpost in decline, they are embers of neither establishment nor, strictly speaking, the underclass. They're the dispossessed of the Information Age.
Now Linklater has adapted Philip K. Dick's dark, paranoid nightmare "A Scanner Darkly," and the crackpots are looking a little less crazy. As the saying goes, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean that everybody isn't out to get you. In the dismal near-future of the film, when large-scale government spying has taken the next logical step into thought-surveillance, questioning the effect of shadowy forces no longer requires an overactive imagination. It doesn't even require a drug habit (though, of course, it helps to have one). The dropouts and burnouts of "Scanner" don't have to wonder if they're being watched; they are in every sense part of the program.
Set seven years from now, after the war on drugs and the war on terror have combined into an indistinct assault on just about everything except corporate interests, an undercover federal agent named Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) visits his local Brown Bear Lodge to regale the assembled with alarming stories about a new drug scourge called Substance D. Arctor works under such deep cover -- he wears a holographic coverall called a "scramble suit," which changes his appearance every few seconds -- that even his boss is in the dark as to his real identity.
According to law enforcement statistics, the drug has ensnared 20% of the population. In fact, it's so dangerously addictive (and damaging) that as Arctor's devious friend Jim Barris (Robert Downey Jr.) says, "Either you're on it, or you haven't tried it." Meanwhile, the Substance D "epidemic" has been a major boon to a company called New Path, which, despite its benevolent branding, has profited handsomely from the drug's proliferation, as the company has the corner on rehab and treatment facilities.
Barris is an erudite ne'er-do-well who hangs around Arctor's dilapidated tract house with his pothead friend Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson) and his D-junkie friend Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane), whose habit has him constantly hallucinating insects. Also lurking nervously around the house is Donna Hawthorne (Winona Ryder), Arctor's dealer and girlfriend, whose heavy D habit has completely eradicated her interest in sex.
Arctor is a reluctant informant -- the kind of guy who, as he lectures the upstanding business leaders of Anaheim on the shocking badness of the bad people, thinks to himself that this is exactly the kind of garbage "that makes people do drugs." And he should know. His work duties include using, spying on his friends and, eventually, keeping tabs on himself and reporting back to his mystery boss, who has instructed him to keep an eye on this character Arctor.
As he did in the dream-logic-inspired "Waking Life," Linklater overlays his actors with animation (he uses a process called interpolated rotoscoping), which turns Reeves et al. into still-familiar yet somehow more authentic versions of their characters. Less mediated by the hyper-reality of the actors' movie stardom, the characters become more engrossing. Arctor's descent into drug addiction and paranoia is cartoonish, in a sense. But the truth of his situation, when it's revealed, is more intuitively credible. The brilliance of "A Scanner Darkly" is how it suggests, without bombast or fanfare, the ways in which the real world has come to resemble the dark world of comic books.
'A Scanner Darkly'
MPAA rating: R for drug and sexual content, language and a brief violent image
Warner Independent Pictures presents. In association with Thousand Words. A Section Eight/Detour Filmproduction/3 Arts Entertainment Production. Based on the novel by Philip K. Dick. Written for the screen and directed by Richard Linklater. Director of photography Shane F. Kelly. Editor Sandra Adair. Music by Graham Reynolds. Running time: 1 hour and 40 minutes.
In select theaters.