Midnight Screening: A Scanner Darkly

This week’s pair of Midnight Screenings will return us to the far-flung past of 2006 and 2007, a more innocent time in film history …

It is quite possible that Richard Linklater is the only currently functioning director who really could have directed A Scanner Darkly in the fidgety, twitching tone it so desperately begged for, and thus it is a little bit of magic that he managed to acquire the film at all. Firstly, this is because Linklater, the homegrown Texan with an eye for slacker culture and the distance imparted by time and memory, strips away the science fiction trappings from Phillip K. Dick’s story and renders it all the more pressingly intimate in doing so, without ever sacrificing the essence of the novel about drug abuse and melancholic social anomie. Which is itself important; so many science fiction films rationalize themselves by claiming they are necessarily informing us about the weight of a current world crisis, but as many other Dick adaptations show us, they frequently devolve into glorified techie action flicks. The science becomes a diaphanous masquerade, a meager attempt by a film to convince its audience of its intelligence when it offers nothing but pyrotechnics and quasi-futurism. Linklater doesn’t need a trip to the future; he creates a piercingly grounded tale about trips of a different variety.

Point for Linklater, but still, a number of directors could adapt a Phillip K. Dick story and excise the science fiction trappings. This itself doesn’t require Linklater in any meaningful way. Yet Linklater has two aces up his sleeve, two wild cards that inform and define his career and both showcase his intimate attachment to this particular film and his perfectly modulated understanding of his own identity as a director.

First, and pardon my French: drugs. Or, in this case, drugs as they approach us through the warped demon of time. Linklater loves him some experimentation with time and the double-edged sword of age, as evidenced by his tripartite tale of two lovers over the course of nearly two-decades (the Before trilogy) and the seminal twelve-years-in-the-making Boyhood. Although A Scanner Darkly does not explicitly comment on its own timeliness, it is virtually indistinguishable as a film from the history of Linklater the director, and his own come-up in the heady days of the slacker culture of the 1990s.

The connections to Linklater’s history are multitudinous. Dick’s story was something of a critique and cautionary tale about his drug-damaged friends from the heady days of youthful experimentation in the ’60s and ’70s. Linklater’s introduction into the mainstream was a film about exactly that culture (Dazed and Confused, a loving ode to drugs undercut but an implicit, dark understanding of their own frailty) adapted for the early ’90s slacker culture, a time when ’70s nostalgia was all the rage. In this light, A Scanner Darkly is Dazed and Confused all grown-up, a harsh re-reading of Dazed and an explanation of what might have come of the teenage characters in that film when the drugs got to be too much (Rory Cochrane begins this 2006 film with a brutal trip, and since this actor was vocal about drugs in Dazed and Confused, the connections seem entirely intentional on Linklater’s part).

Certainly, the cast of A Scanner Darkly, Woody Harrelson, Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., and Winona Ryder – all making their introductions to big-time cinema in the late ’80s and early ’90s – weren’t in Dazed and Confused, but they could have been. If you squint real hard, you can see them in that 1993 masterpiece. Somewhere in the background, waiting for a hit? You just have to look, or be in the right state of mind.

The casting seems too on the nose to not recall the early ’90s. Reeves, in particular, is cast as an undercover detective investigating a drug called Substance D, which infects a full fifth of the US population in Linklater’s tale. If it sounds familiar, it is because Reeves played a similar figure in Point Break, albeit with extreme sports and bank robbery replacing drug use, and A Scanner Darkly rests heavily on the question of what might have happened if his character in that film (the ridiculously named Johnny Utah) had turned to the dark side? Not to mention Reeves’ history with the slacker culture of the late ’80s (the seminal Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure) and the de facto slacker sci-fi zeitgeist piece of the late ’90s (The Matrix). Harrelson, Downey, and Ryder, meanwhile, all bare their own baggage, not to mention bugged-out flying-saucer eyes that deform and reread their physical features as grossly garish characters. Even if some of these actors weren’t already known for their rambunctious, outsider reputations as drug users (certainly, in 2006, Downey was not nearly the respectable A-lister he is now), you could absolutely believe them as burn-outs.

But they aren’t simply buggy eyes in A Scanner Darkly! The second reason why Linklater is essential for A Scanner Darkly to function as a film is that he pioneered just about the only style of the ’00s capable of imbuing this tale with all the paranoia and catatonic catastrophe it requires: rotoscoping. First used in his Waking Life, the technique of filming live action and then drawing over the frames leaves a twitchy, scraggly, unfinished texture to the characters, sort of like lines are hovering over their physical forms, threatening to deconstruct their features to the bare geometric shapes and float off with their faces. If you saw Waking Life and felt that said technique would be perfect for an acid trip movie, well, you weren’t alone. But you didn’t have a major directorial career and the clout to fulfill your vision, did you? At least Richard Linklater did.

This display of technique is, ultimately, the primary reason for A Scanner Darkly’s existence. It is a perfect meeting of style and substance, so much so that the style becomes the substance (the narrative, if you remove Linklater’s history and his expression of technique from the piece, is competent at best). A Scanner Darkly is, if nothing else, a phenomenal showpiece for a director proving that he isn’t just another of the many ’90s and early ’00s indie-fried directors who eschew technique for a dogged, ascetic commitment to grungy realism. He is the real deal, a director interested in pushing film into the future, or at least, if we are lucky, saving it from burning out.

Score: 8.5/10

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