In the author’s note of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly the author states, “drug misuse is not a disease, it is a decision, like the decision to step out in front of a moving car.” The book is among Dick’s three bestsellers and as strange and eccentric as it is, the story was written from the crux of Dick’s own experience with drugs and the tragedies that surrounded such a habit. Richard Linklater, known prominently at the time as an auteur of “hangout” films, sought to make an adaptation of the book A Scanner Darkly—a virulent “hangout” story in and of itself. Unlike other adaptions of Dick’s work (like Blade Runner or Total Recall) which formatted his ideas into genre-popular actioners, Linklater sought a truer more faithful adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s book.
In Linklater’s words “to remain true to the book is to attempt something that is more difficult in film than in literature, which is to be both a comedy and a tragedy at the same time.” This might be so, but by using the same interpolated rotoscoping techniques that made his ethereal Waking Life a seminal achievement, Linklater managed to capture a unique visual style for A Scanner Darkly that was just absurd enough to be comical and just human enough to be tragic. The almost psychic reality of A Scanner Darkly creates a buzzed out state of mind where characters seem to exist in a world where nothing is completely real or fake. The artists behind A Scanner Darkly mapped out their design intricately to resemble a comic book, literally infusing the real life motions and emotions of its characters and, frame-by-frame, airbrushing their visage to imbue a feeling of real people being trapped inside a rabbit’s hole of coked-out illusions.
The protagonist of the film is Bob Arctor, played by Keanu Reeves (at his most viscerally understated), an undercover agent assigned to infiltrate and stop the trafficking of a lethal drug known as “Substance D” while battling his own addiction to the stuff. The other characters, played by other a-listers Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson and Winona Ryder, are featured as Arctor’s junkie friends who go about their day-to-day lives drug-addled and paranoid.
Drug use is a vicious cycle perpetuated by instant gratification. By this point the addict knows only one thing, drugs relieve the pain, not realizing that it ultimately orchestrates it as well. Woody Harrelson describes it, “these people are wrestling with their demons. The drugs push them to this level of fear. Then they feel sublime and happy… then fear again.” Bob Arctor finds a kind of escape through Substance D, but using it long enough the drug starts to imprison him in a barely conscious state where memories, good and bad, are only a symptom of reality. The glimpses we get into Bob’s past life are sparing, but lucid and miserable. Reality can be its own consequence, but Linklater knows more than anybody that every moment in “the now” (no matter how painful) are indispensable.
Bob’s two roommates, played by Robert Downey, Jr. and Woody Harrelson, are not afforded the same depth as Reeve’s Arctor but their degradation into drugs is equally as tragic once their concept of friendship is supplanted by a mode of self-seeking, instinctual survival. Essentially, they’re imperative to understanding Dick’s portrayal of law enforcement and society. Downey and Harrelson stand-out, not only as visual star quality, but glances at real and familiar human faces corrupted by the dehumanizing institution of the American justice system.
With movies like the Before trilogy, Dazed and Confused, etc. Linklater has always explored how people connect through art, romance and sometimes even (soft) drugs. A Scanner Darkly is so essential to Linklater just because of how it emphasizes on the things that do the opposite, the forces that disconnect people are just as important to understand the fundamental qualities of friendships. A Scanner Darkly is a study of drug use not necessary as a blight to society but to the individual and his/her capacity to connect with life and with people.
Referring again to Philip K. Dick author’s note, he says, “in this particular life-style [drug use] the motto is ‘be happy now because tomorrow you are dying,’ but the dying begins almost at once, and the happiness is a memory.” Richard Linklater imbues into his films a genuine appreciation for tomorrow (the future so-to-speak) and today; Boyhood appreciates today with a sense of nostalgia (at least for us millennials), Dazed and Confused appreciates tomorrow with an air of optimism and the Before trilogy appreciates yesterday with a touch of longing. What makes A Scanner Darkly so tragic is that Richard Linklater is forced to deny his characters of longing, memory and optimism because the high one gets from drugs is about forgetting those things.
What the quote above means, at least to me, is Philip K. Dick reflecting on his own drug habit with modulated regret—we may be dying tomorrow, but sometimes tomorrow comes too soon. Meeting with Philip K. Dick’s daughters prior to making the film, they outright told Richard Linklater, “you know, if it wasn’t for drugs, our dad would still be writing today, instead of dying in 1982.”