Even though I have not read it, I'm sure it's been said that A Scanner Darkly is an unfilmable book, much like Heart of Darkness once was. But in the hands of the impossibly-talented Richard Linklater, 'Darkly' becomes believable enough to terrify and comes across you at so many different levels that -- like many of Linklater's projects -- you need multiple viewings to appreciate all of them.
To try and write a synopsis of 'Darkly' is an exercise in futility, partly because I'm not sure I understood it entirely, but also because it largely takes a backseat to Linklater's themes of addiction and big government. It's set in the future, but the only advancements we see are the new technologies being used by the government (the scanners) to record seemingly everyone's daily life. A drug called Substance D is taking over the country, but its makers are using the strict drug laws to their advantage. One agency may have found a way to the top of the chain, but only a flawed, illegal plan will allow them a glimpse.
Throughout most of the film, you struggle to understand just where 'Darkly' is going, and only until the last 15 minutes do you really start to grasp what it's all about. But that doesn't detract from the film's enjoyment, because Linklater (as usual) is able to pack his frame with memorable characters and scenarios. There's one sequence in particular which lasts about 20 minutes and ultimately has nothing to do with the main plot, but is a riot nonetheless as the three main characters dissolve into a wreck of mad paranoia.
Although Keanu Reeves is the main character, it's Robert Downey Jr.'s Barris that often carries the film. He manages to constantly come across as both genius and nuts, with some scenes acting as nearly a one man show for his character.
Much has been made about Linklater's use of rotoscoping (or whatever new word he's given it), the exhausting process of layering filmed material with animation pushed the film's release date back over six months, but the result cannot be argued. The technique allows Linklater to manipulate the visuals so they're just beyond reality, and the tricks he uses to illustrate the effects of drug use are something a conventional film could not approach. At the same time it's not distracting, but draws you in even more, never once doubting that you're watching actors performing.
With that said, 'Darkly' never stands on its visuals alone, instead it has a dense, quotable script which keeps the action moving through (at times lengthy) conversation. Despite having almost zero action elements, 'Darkly' remains an entertaining scifi trip because it's packed with ideas and leaves it to the viewers to interpret many of them. Like most of Linklater's projects, 'Darkly' isn't so much a straightforward narrative, as it is a series of connected scenes which could easily stand on their own. We're dropped into the middle of their world as many of the important plot points have already happened, but since the chronology is constantly foggy and we sometimes drift into flashbacks, it's tough to decide just what -- if any -- of the story is reality.
After seeing 'Darkly,' it's hard to imagine how Linklater could take on projects such as Bad News Bears or even School of Rock, but it may be his way of punching a ticket for complete creative freedom on movies that will likely make a studio no money. As much as everyone loves Wes Anderson, he's never produced a box office hit, maybe one day we'll see his name attached to 'Aquaman.'
Friday, July 14, 2006
Filed Under Theatrical reviews