Thursday, August 13, 2009

Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly (2006)

"This has been a story about people who were punished entirely too much for what they did." These are the epilogue words of Philip K. Dick whose novel, A Scanner Darkly, was adapted by Richard Linklater in his 2006 film of the same name who uses these same words to conclude his film. It's a powerful and telling statement. When I initially viewed the film back around the time of its premiere, I was affected by its unexpected plot, its visual style, and extremely sympathetic characters. I didn't revisit the film again until this month but for whatever reason I did. The first time I watched A Scanner Darkly this month, I watched it passively to refresh my memory and enjoy it again. The second time I watched it with more of a critical eye yet this time I was actually listening and really hearing what was said. The third and final viewing of the film this month had me crying like a baby. Keanu Reeves is Bob Arctor, an undercover police officer and drug addict. He lives with James Barris (Robert Downey Jr.) and Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson) who are also addicts. Arctor is friends with addict, Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane), and Arctor's girlfriend is an addict also named Donna Hawthorne (Winona Ryder). Reeves's Arctor gives one speech and two monologues in A Scanner Darkly, all three are powerful.

"There goes a total dope fiend." How true. Arctor is giving a speech to a club meeting in his "scramble suit," a suit which an undercover officer wears when not working that shifts his identity and scrambles his voice to prevent real identity detection. Reeves's Arctor begins by giving his prepared speech: "Calculatedly addicted to Substance D for profit by drug terrorists." He stops in the middle of the speech and the unknown voice coaching him tells him to stick to the script. Dejected, Arctor begins making up his own text: "D is for dumbness and despair and desertion. The desertion of your friends from you, you from your friends. Everyone from everyone. Isolation and loneliness and hating and suspecting each other. D is, finally, death. Slow death. From the head down." How true. Arctor in his only public speech describes the rest of his life for A Scanner Darkly. Downey's Barris might be hooked on his vocabulary flash cards as much as Substance D but he's an idiot. He's visiting the police and accusing Arctor of drug conspiracy, even terrorism, in order to get the police heat off him. Arctor watches Barris accuse him from behind his scramble suit. Arctor eventually starts suspecting Barris of wrongdoing, especially in a scene where via remote scanner Arctor witnesses Luckman choking on some food. Barris, sitting in front of Luckman, picks up the phone to call the paramedics but he might as well be talking into a dead line. Barris fumbles with the address on the phone with physical movement that is the very opposite of immediate. Arctor, in his driveway, with Luckman and Barris cannot even enjoy beers in the middle of the afternoon without Luckman and Barris fighting over some inane crap. Poor Freck is even scared off by the two's shenanigans. Incidentally, it's the chatty scenes with Barris, Luckman, and Freck that will be the most divisive in A Scanner Darkly: viewers will either find them funny, relate to them, be bored by them, or feel better about themselves because they're not like them. However, these scenes are the most "objective" in A Scanner Darkly: this is their life, take it or leave it. Some of the saddest and funniest moments involve poor Freck, such as the opening sequence where Freck is trying to bathe off the bugs which he is hallucinating, his paranoia-induced car trip to the diner to meet Barris, where he imagines a police officer killing him on the spot, or finally, in the saddest, where Freck tries to kill himself, only to eff up his dosage to induce an alien hallucination and not death. Watching it subjectively through Freck's eyes is humorous but watching it "objectively" is really very sad, as Freck is very lonely and desperate.
"What happened? How did I get here?" Arctor wakes up from the sound of Barris playing with a gun outside with Luckman and Freck and begins his first monologue. A flashback scene shows Arctor in his house, now tidy and Arctor well-groomed. There are two children and a young woman with him. "The pain so unexpected and undeserved had, for some reason, cleared away the cobwebs. I realized I didn't hate the cabinet door. I hated my life, my house, my family, my backyard, my power mower. Nothing would ever change. Nothing new could ever be expected. It had to end, and it did. Now in the dark world where I dwell ugly things and surprising things and sometimes little wondrous things spill out at me constantly and I can count on nothing." Arctor is succumbing to effects of Substance D over the course of A Scanner Darkly, and it really alters his perception. Whether Arctor's altered perception of the world is any less closer to the truth is unknown. Interestingly, the police often refer to Arctor, especially to his blurred face behind the suit, as a big criminal, clearly up to no good. However, despite all of the accusations, the film offers almost no evidence whatsoever of any wrongdoing by Arctor, save his using. In one of my favorite scenes, and really the only scene where Arctor and Donna are alone, Arctor tries to hug Donna and give her some affection. Donna pushes him away, and angrily, Arctor leaves. Arctor tries to reach out to her in the parking lot, telling her, "I think it's starting to get bad." Donna doesn't think Arctor's a bad person but she's not going to get too close to him. Ironically, she grabs his hand to pull him back towards her apartment. With the police telling him that he's a big, bad criminal, Donna pushing him away, and and his own altered drug-induced perception, Arctor soon makes his saddest and final monologue:

"Crazy job they gave me. But if I wasn't doing it, someone else would be. And they might get it wrong. They might set Arctor up, plant drugs on him and collect a reward. Better it be me, despite the disadvantages. Just protecting everyone from Barris is justification in itself. What the hell am I talking about? I must be nuts. I know Bob Arctor. He's a good person. He's up to nothing. At least, nothing too bad. In fact, he works for the Orange County Sheriff's Office covertly which is probably why Barris is after him. But that wouldn't explain why the Orange County Sheriff's Office is after him. Something big is definitely going down in this house. This rundown, rubble-filled house with its weed-patch yard and cat box that never gets emptied. What a waste of a truly good house. So much could be done with it. A family and children could live here. It was designed for that. Such a waste. They ought to confiscate it and put it to better use. I'm supposed to act like they aren't here. Assuming there's a "they" at all. It may just be my imagination. Whatever it is that's watching it's not human unlike little dark-eyed Donna. It doesn't ever blink. What does a scanner see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does it see into me, into us? Clearly or darkly? I hope it sees clearly, because I can't any longer see into myself. I see only murk. I hope for everyone's sake the scanners do better. Because if the scanner sees only darkly, the way I do then I'm cursed and cursed again. And we'll only wind up dead this way knowing very little and getting that little fragment wrong too." This was the speech that moved me to tears. Arctor is a person who thought he hated his life but really never loved himself, was never able to see himself clearly. Police are telling him he's a bad person; and Donna's not saying that he's a good person or someone that she wants to be with. It was really only during my final viewing of A Scanner Darkly that I really listened to Arctor's words and felt their feelings. Subsequently, when Arctor tells the doctors that he's never using again, it's a genuine admission. Substance D really taken too much from his life, and he can't grasp on to anything real, clearly or darkly. A Scanner Darkly is one of the most sympathetic portraits of drug addicts that I've ever seen. I remember feeling those same feelings in Arctor's final speech at one time in my life and thinking the same thoughts. Whether a scanner is able to capture anything, clearly or darkly, Linklater and Dick certainly captured the feelings that I had felt at one time.