The highs and lows of substance addiction

A Scanner Darkly, 100 minutes. Rating: M. Directors: Richard Linklater. Starring: Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Robert Downey Jr, Woody Harrelson and Rory Cochran. Website.

The highs and lows of substance addictionEfforts to translate seminal 20th-century author Philip K. Dick’s cerebral sci-fi to the big screen have traditionally had mixed results.

Blade Runner (1982), based on Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, effectively fused big-screen bravura with heady philosophy. Later, the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Total Recall, Spielberg/Cruise blockbuster Minority Report, and John Woo’s lamentable Paycheck tended to be big on brawn but low on intellect.

Cut to 2006, and enter maverick screenwriter/director Linklater to adapt one of Dick’s most personal and small-scale works. The novel A Scanner Darkly examines some of Dick’s favourite topics—identity, paranoia, addiction. In Linklater’s film, America’s war on drugs also emerges as a reflection of the real-world War on Terror, where government forces rage against a demonised and largely faceless enemy.

Be warned: this is a film that delves so deep into the muddled headspace of drug addiction you’d be forgiven if you forget which way is up. It is perhaps the least accessible of the film adaptations of Dick’s work, but the truest to his unconventional sensibilities.

Appropriately, stoner icon Reeves fills the central role of Bob Arctor, an undercover cop masquerading as a drug dealer … or is it the other way around? Your guess is as good as his. The film’s set in the not-too-distant future US and Arctor’s so hooked on the nation’s latest drug of choice, the mythical Substance D, that he’s no longer sure where one alter-ego ends and the other begins.

Substance D, in the form of an innocuous red pill, represents the antithesis of the truth-giving red pill Reeves famously swallowed in The Matrix: the more he takes the less he knows for sure.

The highs and lows of substance addictionWhen Arctor finds himself assigned to sift through hours of surveillance footage from hidden cameras in his own home, what emerges is a narcissistic perversion of Orwellian paranoia—“Big Brother” watching himself through a microscope. It’s absurd, but again reflects the climate of overwrought fear and paranoia that seems so prevalent in our world since 9/11.

Linklater, meanwhile, utilises the same animation technique (interpolated rotoscoping, which involves tracing live-action film) that augmented his heady 2001 feature Waking Life, to help keep his viewers as disoriented as his protagonist.

Appropriate as he may be for the role, Reeves’ acting tends to be a bit wooden. Which, in the case of A Scanner Darkly, leaves him wide open to being upstaged by both Downey (especially) and Harrelson—who channel their own well-publicised scrapes with illicit substances to turn in sublimely funny performances as Arctor’s drug-addled housemates—and Ryder, as Arctor’s flaky, addicted, sort-of girlfriend.

Dark, challenging and very funny—after 100 minutes immersed in the disconcertingly cartoonish unreality of A Scanner Darkly, you’ll resurface feeling both dazed and confused (to name-drop one of Linklater’s earlier films); you’ll also have earned some insights into both the chaotic highs and the tragic lows of substance addiction.



submit a comment


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up