The Rick-trospective: A Scanner Darkly

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In honor of the November 7 release of Paste Movies Editor Michael Dunaway’s documentary 21 Years: Richard Linklater (in which Paste is the media partner), we’re going through the indie master’s entire oeuvre in order, film by amazing film.

The way in which we value movies is relative to an x-y axis, and anyone who claims otherwise is lying, subconsciously or not. The x-axis is simple: how good is the movie in terms of cinematography, plot, acting, etc.? The y-axis, though, is much more subjective. It relates to personal circumstances surrounding a movie. It’s what takes bad movies and turns them into cult classics, and it’s the driving force behind why some people actually enjoy the Star Wars prequels or, in my case, Dirty Work. Some films, though, are predisposed to that y-axis, even if they naturally score high on the x-axis. A Scanner Darkly, Richard Linklater’s second animated-over-live-footage film, is one such movie.

It’s the kind of film that’s hard to remember without recalling specific circumstance. It hits that deeply, touches that kind of nerve, was that unexpected. When I first saw it, I hadn’t seen Waking Life, Linklater’s first movie using the style of animation in which a movie is filmed live action then an animator traces over every frame. The result is disorienting. It looks the way everything feels when you’re being pumped full of anesthesia for surgery. Nothing in any frame is still; everything crawls like the bugs in the opening scene. But more on that in a moment.

When I sat down at the old Canal Place in New Orleans to view it, I knew I liked Philip K. Dick, who wrote the novel the film’s based on, and I thought I liked Richard Linklater movies. Until then, my experience had been films like Dazed and Confused and the Before Sunrise/Sunset pairing. Simple, heartfelt films about realistic people, filmed in simple, heartfelt ways. Walking into A Scanner Darkly, though I had read the novel, I expected a similar treatment. I’d never seen a trailer, nor did I really know what Richard Linklater was capable of. Later, thanks to a set of insurance commercials using his style of animation, we would all know, albeit furiously.

The first thing that strikes you about the adaption, even before the animation style, is that even the cast is never still. The movie’s about a future in which the War on Drugs is lost—yes, that sounds pretty close to our present—and a new drug named Substance D is sweeping the nation. Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is an undercover detective who finds himself an addict. Through most of the film, he’s taking D with James Barris (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson). And things have gotten bad. Those bugs I mentioned? They’re not real, but they’re crawling all over him at any given moment.

The cast stands out the way the animation does: These are not actors who deal in stillness. They move constantly, always some nervous twitch displaying some desperate itch that begs to be scratched. Toss in animation that dances from frame to frame, and we’re a long way from the gorgeous Vienna of Before Sunrise or Lee High School of Dazed and Confused. The movie, like its players (including Rory Cochrane and Winona Ryder), is anxious and desperate. Hallucinations, mental breakdowns and near-constant drug use are the audience’s closest companions.

The point is obvious: what you’re watching is what drug use can do to the brain. I don’t care what anyone says: Stop screening Requiem for a Dream at high schools, and play this. Because the movie is viscerally uncomfortable in a way no film before it—save, maybe, for Waking Life—and no film after it ever has been. It breaks one of the simplest rules of cinematography: the audience should appreciate a shot. We’re never given the time to take anything in, much less a shot. The plot doesn’t particularly matter: cop does cop stuff, has breakdown, etc., but it could have been about the guy buying a cup of coffee. We were going to squirm either way.

All of this is to say, Richard Linklater is—as has been shown by this series of essays—an American master. While the film never allows the audience comfort, it is utterly in control. Utterly controlled chaos. From the way Downey Jr. and Reeves rub their arms in drug-induced phantom itches to the way even a simple table jumps and confuses, Linklater masterfully guides each scene in such a way that we don’t walk out, that we don’t get too uncomfortable, that we appreciate while feeling queasy.

There aren’t many directors who could go from Before Sunrise to A Scanner Darkly, just to later return to his original form. Linklater is a chameleon of form, and nothing proves it better than this adaptation. Instead of reducing Dick’s work to mainstream cinema—like, say, Minority Report did—he transforms it by doing something novels do well while films often fail: maintaining a feeling.

In this case, that feeling is a sense of dread. But a damn masterful deliverance of it.

21 Years: Richard Linklater is produced by Tara Wood, Michael Dunaway and Melanie Miller, directed by Dunaway with co-director Tara Wood, and will be released theatrically and on demand through Gravitas Ventures. You can see the trailer and pre-order the film here, and get more info (including links to preview clips) here.

Travis M. Andrews is an arts and tech journalist based in Washington, D.C., and New Orleans. He has written for TIME, Esquire, The Atlantic, Mashable, Syfy, The Washington Post, The Times-Picayune and others. When he was younger, he wrote on his mother’s walls. She was displeased. For more about Travis, please visit or follow him on Twitter.