A Scanner Darkly is full of addicts. They are cunning, chatty, and charming. They are also paranoid and peculiar. Several are “friends,” if such a term can be used to describe folks so prone to distrust and alienation. Though they probably want to like one another, they can’t, because at any given moment, they’re never quite sure who they are—“they” meaning others and themselves.
Such a dilemma is not unique to addicts, of course. But these addicts are exposed to an especially literal version of it, in the form of something called a “scramble suit,” by which the wearer appears to be as countless identities at once, or sequentially but so quickly that the changes are unreadable. In this science-fictionish near future (“seven years from now”), based on a 1977 Philip K. Dick novel, the suits serve partly as undercover devices, partly as means to evade responsibility and seek revelation, and partly as metaphors for missing identities. Richard Linklater’s movie makes consummate use of the suit as concept, via the rotoscoping technique the director first explored in Waking Life. The application of weird-and-shifty animation onto live-action performances makes the very notion of material, lived-in space seem rather quaint, not to mention the related idea that time fits into a continuum. And so, the addicts in Scanner are simultaneously in their element and illustrating the utter incomprehensibility of that element.
The narrative and political point of departure is drugs, as these are understood to be debilitating and mind-altering. Undercover narcotics agent Fred (Keanu Reeves) first steps up to a podium to describe his experience to an assembly of the True Path, concerned citizens in Anaheim, CA. Fred knows they want to hear about the efficacy of the war on drugs, specifically, something called Substance D. “If there were no demand in our society,” he says in a scrambled-voice to match his suit, mouthing the circular logic that condemns the addict as consumer, “there would be no market for these leeches to exploit.”
But as Fred looks out on his pleasant-enough listeners, the shot of his external “self” in suit, all untraceable and variable, cuts to inside the suit, where Bob Arctor—his other “identity”—is looking squeamish. His handler tells him to get on with his “prepared text,” but Bob stumbles over the words: “D,” he says, “stands for dumbness and despair and desertion… D is finally death, slow death.”
The handler decides it’s time to give Fred a talking to. Back at the office, Fred (still in his suit) and the handler (on the opposite side of a big wooden desk, also in a suit) discuss the assignment. As Bob, he’s living in a house with a couple of addicts, Barris (Robert Downey Jr., whose 5 July appearance on GMA ended with Diane Sawyer noting the Fourth marks his sobriety anniversary; “Yeah,” he smiled patiently, “I timed it nice, so I just pretend the fireworks are for me”) and Luckman (Woody Harrelson). Bob is supposed to uncover some dealing kingpin, who may be himself. To keep his cover, he’s been using, and now he’s hooked on D.
A rather more extreme version of said jonesing is embodied by the perpetually itchy-and-scritchy Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane), introduced in mid-frenzy, covered with imaginary bugs and wholly unable to separate what’s in his head from what’s not. Because the film tends to collapse this distinction as well—all experiences sharing the same roto-hallucinatory hecticness—Freck’s tumult becomes yours. You can understand his desire to kick but also get the bleak feeling that it’s impossible: “Cold turkey doesn’t apply to Substance D,” declares Barris, “You’re either on it or you haven’t tried it.”
To the extent that Scanner adopts any conventional form, it establishes Bob as the most sympathetic, least overtly frantic of the addicts, by granting access to his worrying about his status—as an addict, a narc, a man losing his grip on any number of realities. Examined by doctors, Bob learns that his use of D is having its inevitable effect, severing the hemispheres in his brain, such that he’s can no longer keep track of his multiple lives, forgetting where he is and what he’s doing.
Primary among Bob’s confusions is his relationship with his girl, who also happens to be his dealer, Donna (Winona Ryder). Like other women characters imagined by Philip Dick, Donna is more baffling and remote than dependable, but she also pulses (roto-wise and in Ryder’s performance) with a sense of grim knowledge. Another lens through which to view Bob’s disintegration, Donna is sometimes sad, other times elusive: she’s seen this before, she knows how the system works, she’s regretful. And for Bob, the fact that she can’t bear to be touched (“I do a lot of coke,” she says, “Leave my body alone”) only makes her seem more special. He begins to hallucinate he’s in bed with her instead of the girl he’s brought home for the night. Or maybe he’s not hallucinating: the machine he’s using to read the image doesn’t clarify.
Such unhinging is of a piece with the addicts’ incapacity for certainty and intimacy, their fear of themselves, if they had selves, and their desperation for connection. Watching activities in his house on delayed-tape surveillance cameras in his cop-station cubicle, Bob rewinds and considers his handler’s advice that he edit himself out, though not too much, because otherwise, he won’t exist, at least in the eyes of those monitoring his actions. Thinking he’s a cop, Bob can’t tell if that matters.
Bob’s junkie story is both banal and bizarre. He’s lonely, suspicious, perplexed. He knows he can’t find solace in his addiction, and yet he has it and it has him. Simultaneously strange and familiar, not himself, he lives inside an ooky, unsolvable world that mirrors our own ongoing fears, of surveillance, loss, and forgetting.
A Scanner Darkly - Trailer