A Scanner Darkly
Time Out says
By turns amusing, unsettling and baffling, the skittish story centres on McDad-turned-dropout Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) who, in his alternative identity as a deep-cover drugs agent known as ‘Fred’, is charged with monitoring a gaggle of deadbeat D-users, including two-faced motormouth James Barris (Robert Downey, Jr), wild-eyed space cadet Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson), ostensibly more self-possessed dealer Donna Hawthorne (Winona Ryder) and, er, McDad-turned-dropout Bob Arctor. This Möbius strip of an assignment turns out to be pretty typical of LA, 2013, where intolerable pressures bear on atomised minds. Dick’s title is a reference to the chapter in Corinthians in which St Paul suggests that, in this world, ‘we see through a glass, darkly’ – an image of incomplete comprehension deployed in the service of a plea to embrace charity. That attribute is absent here: a friend in need is a cause for suspicion, the abduction of an innocent fellow-citizen a cue to look the other way. Here, there really is no such thing as society.
Rather than a garish dystopia, then, ‘Scanner’ offers the banality of fascism. Where other filmed Dick stories – ‘Blade Runner’, ‘Total Recall’ and ‘Minority Report’ being the most prominent – have gone to great lengths to fashion exotic future worlds packed with bleeding-edge eye candy, Linklater serves up a disarmingly familiar milieu with only a smattering of hi-tech magic, related to modes of perception and integrated into the animated mise en scène. Most impressive is the ‘scramble-suit’ worn by Arctor-as-Fred: designed to stymie face-recognition sensors, it’s a constantly shifting mask of fractured features which at any one time might resemble, say, the eyes and nose of an African American girl and the jawline of an Asian grandfather. It’s a local version of the rotoscoping technique with which the whole movie is stamped – a recognisable but fundamentally unreliable version of the real, it’s an apt expression of the pervasive uncertainty of the setting. It’s also wondrously attractive, all the more so for the avoidance (with one or two exceptions) of extrovert ‘Waking Life’-style set-pieces.
The casting is spot-on. Even on a good day, Reeves struggles to seem entirely certain of who he is, where he is and what he’s doing there, and his air of hazy befuddlement is perfect for the increasingly cracked Arctor. That many of the rest of the cast have established track records of enthusiastic substance experimentation adds another layer. Part of Dick’s point is the reduction of discourse to banality and, when Downey’s Barris is on screen, the film can feel like being stuck in a lift with a crank. Even when he’s not, it’s a very talky film: this may be the future, but it’s a future realised by the Linklater of ‘Slacker’ and ‘Before Sunrise’, and the emphasis is on opinionated stoners in slovenly tract housing, not flying cars and laser fights. The narrative is also a slippery prospect, as scrambled and frustrating as Fred’s mask – but then that’s only fitting for a film about fake impostors with lives that feel like movies shot on CCTV.
Cast and crew
Robert Downey Jr