For Narc Week our (smaller than usual) movie crew watched A Scanner Darkly, a hyper-stylized adaptation of Phillip K. Dick’s novel by the same name. The movie stars Monday Movie Night favourite and Island charter president look-alike Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Robert Downey Jr., and Woody Harrelson as a group of down-and-out drug users, one of whom is an undercover informant. The story takes place in a dystopian not-too-distant future where a dissociative drug called Formula D has addicted nearly 20% of the United States population.
The film used a unique technique called “interpolated rotoscoping,” essentially animating the film by tracing the scenes and then using that animation for the final cut. This technique added a level of confusion for the viewer, and enhancing the surreal nature of the film. Much like the drug, it became hard to decipher between reality and the character’s hallucinations, and as the camera moved or tracked characters the sets seemed to move unnaturally, which was slightly distracting, but mostly disorienting. The technique helped the viewer gain a sense of discombobulation that was prevalent amongst the characters. It truly felt like as a viewer you too were on Formula D, and your grip on the reality of the film was tenuous at best.
The downward spiral of paranoia was masterfully captured in the three distinct characters played by Reeves, Downey Jr., and Harrelson. Reeves, playing the central character in the film, was easiest to identify with, we followed him and almost justified his drug use, and as other’s around him were clearly having trouble moderating their intake it was easy to believe his “I’m not using that much” mantra that became almost self-affirmative. Harrelson played your typical loveable stoner, the easiest comparison I could come up with was Jim Breuer in Half Baked – forgetful, spaced out, but good-natured and loveable in his delusions. Downey Jr. did an admirable job of playing the rambling, addled, neurotic and paranoid nerd. Admittedly, that was probably not much of a stretch for him but knowing his past issues with drug abuse seemed to lend him a credibility that Reeves lacked.
There was an interesting inversion of the typical Narc centric movie, and that was the use of the “scramble suit” to hide the identity of the confidential informant. Using this method, we knew who the CI was, but not who he was reporting to, further adding to the confusion and paranoia the film was already rife with. Without spoiling the ending, the paranoia turns out to be misguided, but ultimately justified. L+Director Richard Linklater did a spectacular job of capturing the essence of knowing that something was afoot, but being too addled and distracted by a new and different perspective to be able to determine exactly what that is.
This was a great film to watch with the group we had, as there are a number of twists and turns, and some characters that lead double lives and require your attention to really figure out what they’re doing and whose side they’re on. Credit to Linklater for creating a disjointed universe where even as a “sober” viewer it’s impossible to determine where reality ends and the hallucinations and dissociation begins.