Even though scene for scene it sticks very close to Philip K. Dick’s counterculture classic, A Scanner Darkly feels much more like the earnest theorizing of Richard Linklater in Waking Life mode. The interpolated rotoscoping techniques, which cloak live-action photography in a graphic-novel haze of animation, seems more appropriate in this tale of a drug-addicted, brain-fried undercover cop called Fred (Keanu Reeves) who is ordered to narc on his own secret identity, a dealer named Bob Arctor. His police identity is kept anonymous by wearing a “scramble suit,” which renders him into a vague blur of ever-shifting faces and identities, a walking piece of abstract art. The suit alone justifies the animation techniques, yet one cannot help but wonder what Terry Gilliam might have done with it in live-action. Gilliam, in fact, might have been able to tap into the absurd humor of Dick’s novel, the identity crisis of chasing after one’s own tail, and the paranoid, mind-addled horror of full-blown addiction.
Linklater is working with excellent material, though, and his down-home portrayal of addicts hanging out in their slob’s paradise apartment in Austin, TX offers some vivid set pieces. Opening with a junkie (Rory Cochrane) desperately trying to scrub off the insects of his mind in the shower using scrubbing brushes and insecticide, followed by misadventures with Arctor and his roommates (explosive Robert Downey Jr. in full-on psychotic chat-a-holic mode and Woody Harrelson doing his usual thing) driving around in cars ready to fall apart on the highway and wandering around their place, outfitted with hidden security cameras, wondering if their place has been infiltrated. The laughs should be sticking in your throat, watching these lost souls self-destruct as they focus on inanities, but Linklater can’t quite go that far.
Linklater, to his credit, has a skill for taking stories that thinly drift along on a vibe and make it vaguely, loosely compelling. If a scene gets dull, Arctor’s roommates will suddenly transform into gigantic talking insects with human heads. While Reeves might not be the most ideal stand-in for Dick, he carries the film along on an Orange County would-be philosopher’s stream of consciousness, and his blank face, awkwardly skinny frame, and scraggly beard seem appropriate for a character whose mind is so erased that he’s in the land of the lost. There’s still enough Matrix in Reeves to speak mumbo-jumbo he probably doesn’t understand and make it sound rich in meaning.
When Bob goes out on a date with his sometimes girlfriend Donna (a surprisingly intense Winona Ryder, whose acting is vastly improved by the animation) and their evening climaxes with a chilling talk on the couch about why he cannot hug her close because of some half-baked theory of her being hopped-up on cocaine, Reeves and Ryder are stand-ins for a generation of actors who cannot emote, cannot act, cannot do much beyond posture, but they are trying like hell, for one second, to connect. Reeves stands up, frustrated and sad, says “Fuck it,” and walks out the door. Linklater may not completely tap into the comical nightmare of Dick’s novel (though sometimes he gets close with Downey’s maniacal experiments like one involving silencers that freakishly amplify the sound of handguns), but he’s good at capturing the failed intimacy of Generation X.