305 – A Scanner, Darkly

In a near-future dystopian society, Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is an undercover cop hooked on an extremely addictive drug called Substance D (for desertion, desolation, depression, death, you name it). Arctor has infiltrated a gang of low-level drug pushers/smugglers, including Donna Hawthorne (Winona Ryder), Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane), James Barris (Robert Downey, Jr.), and Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson), hoping to find out who their supplier is. At the same time, though, Arctor is falling under the deep spell of Substance D himself and is beginning to hallucinate.

So Bob’s hooked, but he doesn’t want anyone at work to know (it might cost him his job). And his boss at work is leaning on Bob to get more information; the boss knows Bob’s in the gang, but he doesn’t know which of the gang is Bob. Confused? Well, see, here’s a nifty little quirk – every undercover agent wears an intelligent suit and mask that is constantly changing: the face, the body, the clothes, everything. Plus, the voice that comes out of the mask is altered, so no one can tell who’s inside. This goes for Bob’s boss, too. Essentially, the cops know that Bob, known as Officer Fred to his station, is one of the four members of the gang, but they don’t know which one, and they don’t care.

But while Bob’s trying to get the goods on the gang, another of their number snitches – Barris. According to Barris, Bob’s the leader of the pack, the man in charge, the one responsible for pushing all of the dope. Of course, Barris has no idea that Bob is right there in the room when Barris makes this accusation to Bob’s boss. So now Bob’s job becomes one of survival – he can’t let the police know how deep he is, because he could be implicated much worse than anyone else.

I know, I know, this sounds pretty complicated and convuluted, but bear with me – my explaining skills aren’t as swift as those of screenwriter (and director) Richard Linklater and author Phillip K. Dick, on whose story this movie’s based. The movie’s about losing one’s identity – who is Bob? Is he Bob, or is he Fred? Is he the owner of the drug, or the ownee? And, he has to wonder, is anyone else he knows actually as they seem, or are Ernie and Charles also in with the police? Is Bob being set up?

Substance D is bad. Megabad. Anyone here ever see the movie Naked Lunch? In it, Peter Weller hallucinates he’s talking to giant cockroaches. That’s one of the many effects of long-term Substance D use. Other side effects include schizophrenia and paranoia; essentially, the two hemispheres of Bob’s brain are competing for dominance, and it’s messing him up just a teensy bit. People who get to this stage of Substance D use usually wind up in rehab at a place called New Path, which apparently has been very effective in curing what ails ya.

Aside from the gripping plot – and it is gripping, just complex enough to maintain your interest without boring the hell out of you – the main draw here is the filming technique that Linklater uses, rotoscoping. The actors were first filmed performing their scenes; then, the scenes were drawn over and computerized. The result is an eerie, lifelike effect; it’s like watching an extremely well animated film in which every detail is nuanced, every character fully articulated. Rather than being a distraction or a novelty, though, the technique enhances the movie greatly, taking a fairly straightforward plot and ramping it up chillingly. (As an aside, I think it’s the kind of effect Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez wish they’d achieved with Sin City, which feels laughable next to this masterpiece.)

So all in all, this is a wonderful film. Fascinating to watch, riveting, the whole nine yards. There’s plenty of suspense and just enough unanswered questions to leave you satisfied in the end. Reeves is perfect for the role, and Ryder’s never looked more beautiful. Heck, even Harrelson was outstanding. This is a real treat.

***1/2

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