A Scanner Darkly (2006)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #292


Number of Views: Two
Release date: May 25, 2006 (Cannes Film Festival), July 7, 2006 (United States)
Genre: Sci-Fi/Thriller
Country of Origin: United States
Budget $8,700,000
Box Office: $7,700,000
Running time: 100 minutes
Director: Richard Linklater
Producers: Tommy Pallotta, Anne Walker-McBay, Palmer West, Jonah Smith, Erwin Stoff
Screenplay: Richard Linklater
Story: Philip K. Dick
Visual Effects: Richard Gordoa
Cinematography: Shane F. Kelly
Score: Graham Reynolds
Editing: Sandra Adair
Studios: Thousand Words, Section Eight, Detour Filmproduction, 3 Arts Entertainment
Distributor: Warner Independent Pictures
Stars: Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder, Rory Cochrane, Mitch Baker, Sean Allen, Cliff Haby, Steven Chester Prince, Natasha Valdez, Mark Turner, Chamblee Ferguson, Angela Rawna, Eliza Stevens, Sarah Menchaca, Melody Chase, Leif Anders, Turk Pipkin

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Suggested Audio Candy

Thom Yorke “Black Swan”


“Drug misuse is not a disease, it is a decision, like the decision to move out in front of a moving car” Philip K. Dick

I’ve done far too many a narcotic in my lifetime. From pills popped, bud smoked, tabs necked and barbiturates snorted, it’s a wonder I have made it to forty. I always justified it in my head by reminding myself that I would never inject or heat a spoon as though that actually makes me some kind of saint when in reality I’ve spent around half my life addicted to one substance or another. I can’t even smoke responsibly; if I had a hot beverage in my hand then, chances are, I would chain smoke until the packet was empty. I’m one of life’s hopeless little addicts and am more than aware of the damage I must’ve have done to my body over the years. If I was asked the question “would you change anything if you could go back to being sixteen again?” then the answer would be a resounding yes. It’s no fun being so easily led and, when I struggle to run up a small flight of stairs without a coronary, it serves as a painful reminder of my excess and the long-term effects of my life choices.


That’s not to say I haven’t had a whole lot of fun bending the boundaries of reality. My very first acid opened up a part of my brain previously inaccessible and was potentially the most outrageously enjoyable evening of my entire existence but unfortunately it acted as a yard stick for every drop which followed. Always searching for that elusive first buzz, we never again achieve that high and end up chasing an improbable euphoria and upping our dose in an attempt to finally revisit that one night. Needless to say there are psychological burdens and mental frailties which stem from such irresponsible endeavor but we take the rough with the smooth as any internal damage is exactly that, easy to sweep under the rug. I am built from good stock; have never broken a bone, possess a kick ass immune system, and my expected lifespan would likely have been nigh-on a hundred before I began with the purple haze. Now I would be contented just to make fifty. I’m under no illusions of the damage I have done to myself.

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However there are benefits. Watching The Doors or Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, having previously dropped acid and the like, afforded a far more intimate understanding of their complexities, and A Scanner Darkly is another one for that exclusive list. Almost inaccessible to those who haven’t expanded their minds in one way or another, it begins to make a lot more sense to those who have. Richard Linklater’s ambitious translation of Philip K. Dick’s original story is also one of the most faithful interpretations of the great man’s work. Total Recall, Minority Report and Blade Runner, to name but three, were all massaged from the source material to allow for easier accessibility and Linklater bravely refrains from spoon-feeding his audience, thus giving a far closer version of events to how it was originally intended.


Dick’s work was a semi-autobiographical reenactment of his own experiences with narcotics, both recreational and abusive, and perhaps his most emotionally exhausting work. During the writing process, his wife would regularly find her husband inconsolable after working on the story and even became directly involved in helping him wrestle out the truth. He had lost friends, both directly and indirectly caused by drug use, and everything within its bindings stemmed from an experience he actually lived at some point during his life. Hence, kit gloves were required when bringing his fable to the silver screen, and both Terry Gilliam and Charlie Kaufman had designs on making it so. In the end it was Linklater who grabbed the poison chalice and this culminated in Dick’s daughters gifting him their father’s personal copy of his novel upon completion as a mark of respect for the way he approached it.

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“For now we see through a glass darkly; but then, face to face: now I know in part; but then I shall know even as I am known” Corinthians 13:12

Linklater stumped on a rather unorthodox method of filming after pioneering rotascoping with his fascinating dream study Waking Life five years previous. This was a dicey pursuit as, although shooting wrapped in 23 days, it took a further eighteen months for the animation process to reach its completion. It also meant that A Scanner Darkly struggled to make a return at the box office as many viewers were alienated by the animation and found it off-putting. I was never one of those people; in my opinion, it perfectly suits the story and Linklater’s implementation is nigh-on faultless throughout. To call it animation would actually be doing a grand disservice to his endeavor as it looks utterly authentic and each of the numerous recognizable faces are so lovingly realized that I found myself forgetting the method had even been used.

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Keanu Reeves, Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder and notably Robert Downey Jr. all signed up and the latter in particular has fought his own demons with regards to recurring drug use, thus he commits himself brilliantly. Reeves, often unfairly chastised for being wooden, takes the lead role of Bob Arctor, an undercover informant assigned to infiltrate the chain of supply of a powerful new drug named Substance D and relay his findings back to the government in turn. His housemates are all users and each is under surveillance but he unwittingly finds himself addicted to the narcotic and the lines of his own reality begin to fray. It focuses on paranoia, both his from his exclusive viewpoint within an amorphous scramble suit that allows him to see what his friends really think about him, and each of his twitching associates in turn.

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In particular, Downey Jr as James Barris is priceless; the king of the lengthy and meandering edgy monologue is in fine form here and had rather an unconventional approach to learning his lines. He scribbled them on post-it notes and scattered them randomly across the set, where they were later removed in post. If anyone can do paranoia then I would imagine he would be better-versed than most due to his ongoing struggles with addiction. It shows and every moment he parades on-screen is like an instant shot to the ventricle. The whole cast are uniformly excellent and commit themselves admirably, while the tight direction of Linklater, coupled with his intense understanding of the brief, make A Scanner Darkly the most authentic translation of any of Dick’s numerous work in existence.


It is occasionally downright hilarious and the character of Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane) gives us a multitude of moments to savor. His failed suicide attempt shows Dick’s writing at its most out there and belly laughs ensue although, ironically, this would probably have been particularly painful for the writer to recount. Like drug use there are many ups and downs and it is possible that you will feel strung out by its adroit conclusion. It also commands repeat viewing as invariably there are layers which can’t be accessed via a single view. Admittedly, some will be impeded by the choice of rotascope and it is required you pay rapt attention to what is transpiring as the animation can be seen as a hindrance. However, if you’re a fan of Dick’s novels then you won’t find one so painstakingly reenacted that gives such exclusive insight into his wonderful contorted mind.


Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10

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