Let’s say you could extract a gram of pure cocaine from a common aerosol product, using only a plastic bag and the freezer compartment of your refrigerator. Or imagine that with a few pennies’ worth of Styrofoam, you could construct a silencer for the gun that every citizen today ought to carry. In Philip K. Dick’s novel A Scanner Darkly, the drug-addled Barris believes he can accomplish these home-handyman projects, so nifty and delusional–or perhaps he just pretends to believe. Maybe his megalomaniacal incompetence is a show, put on by the duplicitous Barris to distract other druggies from his real purposes, whatever they might be; or maybe he simply, pathetically hopes someone will take his boasts at face value, until the cocaine inevitably fails to crystallize and the gun goes boom.
Motives repeatedly get lost in the narcotic haze of A Scanner Darkly–both in the novel and in Richard Linklater’s film adaptation, which comes into theaters ripe with the taste of your own well-masticated tongue. What’s clear is that this adaptation would have been unthinkable without a nifty, semi-homemade technology of its own, which actually works: a system that turns live-action footage into metamorphic animation using computers much like the one on your desk.
Linklater first toyed with this technology in Waking Life (2001), in which he played with software developed and overseen by Bob Sabiston. You might say that Waking Life was the 1.0 Slacker release of a Linklater animation, since it offered instead of a plot a profusion of freely associated narratives, each segment of which blossomed forth in its own visual style. In A Scanner Darkly, Linklater has again relied on Sabiston’s ingenious aerosol-and-Styrofoam technique, but this time he’s applied it not just to a plot but to an obsessively intricate one, in which betrayals are piled upon suspicions heaped on double-dealings propped up by deceptions and brain malfunction, until the teetering structure resembles a model of the Brooklyn Bridge built out of burned matchsticks; and all of this is animated (under the supervision of Tommy Pallotta) in a single visual style that may be likened, appropriately enough, to camouflage.
The screen becomes a continually reassembled puzzle of flat, pulsing blobs of color–tans and browns, a saturated green like late-August leaves, pinks that sometimes suggest the onset of liver disease–here creeping around one another’s borders, there floating one over another in thin layers. Figures shift and blur into the ground; the ground won’t stay put. At its most extreme, this camouflage effect is localized in the “scramble suits” worn by the story’s narcotics agents, who disguise themselves beneath an electronic fabric that swarms with fragmentary images of human features, rapidly and randomly projected. This isn’t solely a matter of protecting the undercover cop’s identity. In the ’60s-era opposition of dopers versus straights–a binary scheme that Linklater preserves from Dick’s novel–the narc ostensibly upholds social norms and so must have not one public face but many, conforming to the “vague blur” of consensus. Inside the scramble suit, though, dwells a watchful individual, hidden, isolated and disaffected. As the camera penetrates to this inner self, the animator’s patches resolve into an image that’s stable, more or less, and legible. It’s Keanu Reeves.
In company with Winona Ryder, Woody Harrelson and Robert Downey Jr., who join him in lending the movie their well-known physiognomies, Keanu provides a touch of photographic realism–though too light a touch, I think, to feel reassuring. Much as Keanu’s character lets slip his sense of identity–as you’d expect of a drug-addicted undercover narc assigned to carry out intensive surveillance on himself–so do you lose your grip on the actor’s physical presence. He’s here and gone, real and imaginary, in a way that exceeds the usual limits of cinema’s waking dream. This animated dream attaches itself to the waking state like a crust, borrowing movement from the substrate of reality while coloring and changing and supplanting it.