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Written and Directed by Richard Linklater

Three men drive down an American highway on a mission. They are driving to a neighbouring city and they plan on partying it up on the way, while they’re there and all the way home again. Their drug of choice is Substance D, what will be the most popular drug seven years from now, when A SCANNER DARKLY takes place. While speeding along, the car breaks down. What ensues is a hilarious journey into the far depths of drug-induced paranoia. They debate whether this car trouble was pre-meditated, whether their home is simultaneously being ransacked by the same people who sabotaged their car … whether one of them actually anticipated this entire series of events and left the door unlocked and an invitation to enter taped to the front of it. Their plans have been ruined but what they don’t realize is that there was nothing special about this occasion as getting messed up is pretty much what they do every day. As ridiculous as this sequence is, it is also completely useless. It is one in a long string of pointless scenes that are told in a disjointed fashion to give character to what is otherwise a flat and uninteresting film.

A SCANNER DARKLY is director Richard Linklater’s second film to implement an animation technique called rotoscoping, where loosely flowing animation is laid over filmed live-action sequences. The results are mesmerizing and hypnotic. It is also a technique that is capable of accomplishing what most directors have struggled with for years. It creates the illusion that Keanu Reeves can actually act. Joining Reeves in this animated parallel universe are Robert Downey Jr, Woody Harrelson and Winona Ryder. Reeves plays an undercover narcotics agent named Bob Arctor, who can’t seem to differentiate between his personas. The drugs have blurred his existence to the point that he can’t quite grasp whether the images of a wife and family that he has in his mind are a memory or just an image. As his confusion grows, so does his addiction. The results make it difficult to ascertain what life Arctor is actually leading. Shortly before the film ends, Linklater reveals an element that explains all the jarring elements encountered along the way. Suddenly, the story becomes clear and it is seen as nothing more than a straightforward nark story. The explanation may solidify the arch but it doesn’t appease any frustration one might have, having spent so long trying to make sense of what one thought was something different.

Substance D keeps Linklater’s characters detached from each other and themselves. Although the majority of the characters are addicts without a history, Arctor fell into drugs as a reaction to the perfection he thought he had achieved in his life. Adapting author Philip K. Dick’s autobiographical account of how he fell into drugs, Linklater reinforces how people spend so much time walking blindly towards the achievements they always felt would make their life significant and full. The rejection of that comfort through drug usage ultimately leads to a much larger sense of discomfort. It makes the idea of getting close to someone in a sober, authentic context unthinkable and frightening. Finally, Arctor has run away from intimacy and finds himself wanting to have that again but not being capable of having it because his world no longer makes any sense.

The beauty of A SCANNER DARKLY is in its aesthetic. Remove that and I doubt the film would be watchable. Linklater’s previous attempt at this style, WAKING LIFE, was infinitely more successful because the technique lends to the psychedelic dreamscape setting and existentialist-themed conversations. Here, the technique is a life preserver for a bunch of drowning druggies.

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