A Scanner Darkly

Richard Linklater’s Scanner is a haunting but visually stunning depiction of what America on drugs could be in the future.
By  · Published on July 17th, 2006

Release Date: July 7, 2006 (limited)

You have to take it all in context; the seemingly philosophical rants, the overly drawn sense of paranoia, even the hallucinogenic environment. Such a euphoric state is usually the result of large doses of some mind altering substance formally known as a narcotic. While in such a state we are easily swept into an alternate version of our own reality, and it allows for us the opportunity to do things that we would not normally imagine ourselves doing. A similar euphoric state is created during the viewing of Richard Linklater‘s A Scanner Darkly, which coincidentally is an intended effect.

Right off the bat we are hurled into a unique world of the future, where the nation’s drug problem is more than just a problem, it has become a plague. We are focused in on Orange County, where an undercover detective (Keanu Reeves) has assimilated himself into a small group of what he hopes to be people of importance in the dealing of a drug named Substance D. This group is made up of the philosophical and melodramatic Barris (Robert Downey Jr.), the spacey Ernie (Woody Harrelson), the completely over the edge druggy Freck (Rory Cochrane) and his lovely but frigid girlfriend Donna (Winona Ryder), all of whom seem to be mysteriously involved in something potentially big. As he follows his orders and dives deeper into the dark and unforgiving world of drugs he realizes that he is beginning to change along with those around him, and he must find a way to break through his own addictions and find his way to the root of the Substance D network.

And with that story we are sent spinning into the depths of a film that feels almost like a hallucination. In a rehashing of the technique that Director Linklater used in the previously acclaimed film Waking Life, he uses live action that has been animated over with the use of a technique called interpolated rotoscoping (try that on for size.) Basically the movie has a very unique look which creates, in many instances, the feeling of being under the influences. To say that such a style is new and revolutionary would be overkill, as Linklater used it in 2001, but it is the first time that he has put it to use for such a mainstream project. The film itself is absolutely beautiful as a work of art, and it cannot be ignored that without the animated effect of being high, this film may not have been as alluring.

But once you get past the allure of such a delightful visual experience, you are greeted by a few very solid if not great performances. The first of which is the very cynical and intelligent mind of Robert Downey Jr. personified in the character of Barris. It is easy to see that Keanu Reeves what meant to be the center of attention in this film and Downey was there to bring some flair and keep audiences interested. Kudos to Linklater and crew as such a strategy works beautifully as this duo walks us through this world with as many lighthearted follies as serious points of conflict. Downey makes the film entertaining, the story makes it interesting.

Well to say the least, the story is more compelling than it is just interesting. Interesting is a work of art in a museum somewhere, the story behind this film is riveting. Based on the events that plagued Sci-Fi author Philip K. Dick‘s life, this story very quickly grabs hold of us and leads us into confusion. We are then tossed around in that confusion for a while, but kept interested with the subtly sensational elements of dark comedy littered throughout the middle of the film. Then just as we think that we are going to be tossed around some more, the plot comes together neatly just in time for us to figure out exactly what happened. While some viewers may get lost in the haze, most will find there way back through this amazing tale. The dark, cold existence of the drug culture in America portrayed in this film is absolutely chilling to behold, much to the plan of both author and filmmaker.

On a whole this is a film that may not be for everyone, as the dialogue moves quickly, the story twists, and some minds will be lost on the way. But it lends well to anyone who is interested in seeing a movie that does not conform to the standards of your average Hollywood drama. Even more so, it is a film that is equally as cool in nature as it is thought provoking. The message is clear and the animation creates a world unlike any other in film, making A Scanner Darkly an easy addition to the must-see list of 2006.

Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)