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.
There’s something opportunistic about this process, in a good sense. I can imagine Linklater finishing Waking Life back in 2001 and wondering what he could do next with Sabiston’s uncanny machine. I think of him rooting through his library and coming up with A Scanner Darkly as the perfect subject to feed into the hopper. But I also note the date of Waking Life–year zero of the global “war on terror”–and realize that Linklater found more in Dick’s novel than a rich source of hallucination and paranoia, ideal for him to animate. Linklater must have been newly hungry for material about the national surveillance state, and A Scanner Darkly could feed that appetite, too.
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.
Because Alexander Stille is a first-rate journalist, I wouldn’t want him to give up his day job–a possibility that fortunately seems remote, judging from his performance in the documentary Excellent Cadavers. As author of the book on which the film is based–an account of the efforts of a few courageous magistrates to break the Mafia’s power in Sicily–he serves director Marco Turco as an on-screen tour guide, gamely strolling into this archive or that library to pull volumes off the shelf and be photographed examining them. You watch with sympathy as Stille waits for the shot to end, so he can quit this pretense of research. After the eighth or ninth such sequence, you wish Turco would cut you loose, too.
Directorial awkwardness is always easy to deride. (Have I mentioned the fascinating shots of Stille pretending to type?) But in Excellent Cadavers, the importance of the subject matter and the impeccability of the reportage triumph over stylistic shortcomings.
Turco and Stille frame the story with the murders in 1992 of Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, magistrates who had spent years investigating the Mafia in Palermo at great cost to themselves and their families. These men had put many of the most important bosses in jail for life. They even had begun to expose the continuing connection between the Mafia and Italy’s political elite–an act that would prove fatal. The archival footage that Turco has amassed of the magistrates is stunning, especially whenever Falcone reveals the true face of heroism. He was an unassuming man, quiet and self-deprecating.
Excellent Cadavers takes an honorable place in a line that stretches from Margarethe von Trotta’s Il Lungo Silenzio and Ricky Tognazzi’s La Scorta to Francesco Rosi’s early masterpiece, Salvatore Giuliano. You can catch the US premiere at New York’s Film Forum starting July 12.