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“A Scanner Darkly” Is a Richard Linklater Photo Negative
Linklater's darkest film continues to baffle & mesmerize viewers more than 10 years later.
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Linklater’s darkest film continues to baffle & mesmerize viewers more than 10 years later.

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. This month, in honor of his latest film Where’d You Go, Bernadette? we turn our eye to Austin’s favored son, Richard Linklater. Read the rest of our coverage here.

For a filmmaker best known for amiable hang-out stories, Richard Linklater can direct a damn good wide-awake nightmare. A Scanner Darkly, his 2006 rotoscope animated adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel of the same name, is a consistently distressing and disturbing film.

It opens with unfortunate sap by the name of Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane) being tormented by an endless horde of aphids that only he can see. From there, Linklater and his primary ensemble – Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Woody Harrelson and a post-sobriety/pre-Iron Man Robert Downey Jr. – take the audience on a harrowing tour through all of Hell’s circles. A Scanner Darkly is haunting, dystopian science fiction at its best. A big part of the reason why it works so well is that, even in the depths of hallucinatory horror, it’s very much a Richard Linklater film. And when it does depart from Linklater’s usual storytelling style, it does so with intention and precision.

Linklater is famous for letting his movies take their time, for giving his characters the space they need to talk about everything from the search for self-actualization to the possibility that humanity was once telepathic. He’s one of the great directors of conversations, be they intense and personal or goofy and tangent-laden. Linklater and his creative collaborators use what folks talk about and how they talk about it to create dimensional, memorable characters. This is very much the case in A Scanner Darkly, with the twist that its characters range from tormented anti-heroes to truly appalling humans. Reeves, Ryder, Harrelson and Downey hang out and shoot the breeze just the same as their peers in, say Dazed and Confused or Everybody Wants Some!! do. In the scenes where they are alone, Reeves and Ryder’s chemistry recalls that of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in the much-loved Before Trilogy.  But where the heroines and heroes of Linklater’s gentler films generally like and love each other, A Scanner Darkly’s ensemble is a room full of razors.

Reeves’ Bob Arctor is an undercover cop who abandoned his safe, square life for horrors and the occasional dark miracle. As part of his cover as “Bob Arctor, local miscreant,” he abuses the mysterious and insanely addictive drug called Substance D. His “friends,” Ryder’s Donna, Harrelson’s Luckman and Downey’s thoroughly slimy and loathsome Barris use D too. Barring Donna, whom he loves unhealthily, Arctor doesn’t really like his pals. They don’t have much use for him either – Barris in particular aims to frame Arctor for his own criminal acts and later ignores Luckman nearly choking to death. Their scenes together play out like those of other Linklater ensembles, but a low note of dread plays throughout. These are people who hang out together to avoid being alone in their addiction, rather than out of any genuine camaraderie. 

But where the heroines and heroes of Linklater’s gentler films generally like and love each other, A Scanner Darkly’s ensemble is a room full of razors.

Due to its ensemble’s frayed relationships, the paranoia they all grapple with to one extent or another, and the nature of the dystopia in which they live A Scanner Darkly is, unlike much of Linklater’s other work, an intensely lonely picture. Arctor doesn’t like his friends when he hangs out with them, let alone when he has to watch them for hours on end through the array of surveillance cameras installed in his home. To protect their identities while on the clock, he and his fellow cops have to wear scramble suits – full body jumpsuits that constantly transmute their features and reduce their voices to a machine monotone (on a technical note, the scramble suits are truly stunning pieces of animation – 13 years on and there’s still nothing quite like them) – which render them totally anonymous to each other.

The brain-frying effects of Substance D should not be discounted either. Arctor’s addiction eventually grows so severe that he loses sight of his own identity – he does not realize that the man he is surveilling is himself. Arctor is a person lost in himself, one of many. What makes his slide into oblivion particularly distressing, even before the revelation that it was deliberately engineered, is that on some level Arctor realizes this. Consider the following monologue, in which Arctor ponders the surveillance equipment that blankets his home:

What does a scanner see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does it see into me? Into us? Clearly or darkly? I hope it sees clearly because I can’t any longer see into myself. I see only murk. I hope for everyone’s sake the scanners do better, because if the scanner sees only darkly the way I do, then I’m cursed and cursed again.

Arctor is slipping into oblivion. There is no one he can turn to for help. All he can do is hope that there’s someone, somewhere, who has a better understanding of what is going on in the world. There is.

A Scanner Darkly’s climax reveals that Donna is in fact Arctor’s superior in the police. Its denouement reveals that she engineered his addiction to Substance D, and his subsequent mental collapse – explaining her movie-long discomfort with their being intimate despite caring for him. This was not done out of cruelty – the powers behind D are so paranoid that the only way the police could ever successfully infiltrate them would be with someone who was genuinely burned out by addiction. The plan works – Arctor is indeed employed by the addiction treatment facility that secretly manufactures D to grow the very drug that destroyed his mind. And at the picture’s close he has either regained or retained enough of himself to secret away proof of this.

However, the fact remains that to make this happen, Donna had to deliberately deceive Arctor into destroying his own mind. She acknowledges that it was necessary but cannot forgive herself. She is left, as so many of A Scanner Darkly’s characters are, alone. A Scanner Darkly is the bleakest and saddest of Linklater’s films. That it is so recognizably a Richard Linklater film despite that makes it all the more powerful.

A Scanner Darkly Trailer: