Dazed and Confused
From almost its first scene, Linklater's film plays up the political implications of Dick's cautionary tale of drug abuse. When Keanu, the scramble-suited narc, is called up before a civic boosters' club in Anaheim, California, to deliver a propaganda speech for his department, he listens miserably to the host describing him as one of "the troops fighting for us" against the "drug terrorists." This fight (like Bush's "war on terror") entails all-encompassing vigilance and perpetual suspicion; and so Linklater adds to the story a vast wiretapping center where agents seated at computer screens seem to be monitoring everyone's conversations at all times. (You glimpse the place when Keanu, now in street clothes, walks out of police headquarters and phones his heartthrob, Winona, to arrange a drug buy.) Later, in another scene that would have fit well in the novel but can be found only in the film, Linklater has Keanu and Winona encounter a protest speaker at a shopping mall. The man, shouting into his bullhorn, insists that powerful people in and around the government want the drug traffic to continue. It makes them money, he says; it gives them an excuse to exert control. At this point an unmarked van rolls up and a cop in riot gear steps out, to shock the protester into unconsciousness, toss him into the rear and silently drive away.
This isn't to say that Linklater reduces the war on drugs to a pure metaphor of the war on terror; but the realities of drug use clearly do not move him as much as they did Dick, whose novel is charged with anger at the drug traffic and a deep, intimate pity for its victims. Though set in 1994 and published in 1977, A Scanner Darkly is steeped in an insider's knowledge of 1960s drug culture, making it one of the most backward-looking of futuristic novels. The film retains some of this retro feel--even at the Bears Club Lodge in Anaheim, the squares are no longer that square--but for the most part Linklater brings you into the present, if not into the world of "seven years from now" that's announced in an introductory title. The price of this contemporaneity is the loss of precise turns of phrase, points of reference, social attitudes that bind the novel to its era but also tie it to a specific lived experience rather than to a generalized slackerdom.
But then, Linklater also thins out much of the novel's underbrush and many of its suffocating vines: the theological entanglements, for example, and looping strands of existentialist speculation. By cutting to the story's political core, Linklater has given A Scanner Darkly the coherence the book never had, and he has done so without diminishing Dick's scattershot brilliance--which is to say, his life.
I come to Robert Downey Jr. in the role of the inventive Barris. Here Downey is in semi-cartoon form, his gestures balletically extended, his eyes popped as an aid to the animators, his smooth baritone poured onto the soundtrack with an extra dollop of malicious glee. Given the movie's showiest role--demented clowns are always more expressive than gloomy, self-controlled narcs--Downey manages to be as absurd, compelling, convincing and irresistible as you've ever seen him, despite the challenge of being morphed into computerized paint. But Woody Harrelson is just as good, throwing around his long body and stoner's wit with blithe self-abandon; and so is Winona Ryder, who drifts dreamily in and out of her scenes swallowing her r's as if they were an especially succulent brand of Southern California candy.
Keanu remains Keanu. The bouncy dude with limited range has long since become a man with something pained and doubtful in his manner. Linklater has recognized and respected this sense of constraint and also an enduring underlying sweetness that can be allowed to emerge later in the character. I had wearied of Keanu, as would anyone, I think, who'd sat through both The Matrix Revolutions and Constantine. Thanks to A Scanner Darkly, I'm able to like him again.
He's one of the people who bring life to this heady, improbable project, which you wouldn't have thought could crystallize but somehow did. A Scanner Darkly is funny, unnerving, astonishing, urgent. It's my kind of summertime special-effects extravaganza.