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A Scanner Darkly (2006)

by on 2011/11/07

“Your sins will be read to you ceaselessly, in shifts, throughout eternity. The list will never end.”

* * * *

In my misspent youth, I used to have to visit this house. It was a friend of a friend’s place in a very dangerous neighbourhood. There were particle board walls, a torn up couch, mangy, neglected animals roaming around, a sink filled with dirty dishes, garbage on the floor, and in the corner, a discarded wig.

I used to work pretty hard not to touch anything or say anything.

When you spend any time with alcoholics or junkies you learn a few very important things quickly. Don’t argue. Eye contact is to be applied very, very sparingly. And whatever you do, avoid making judgements until you are well out of hearing range. Preferably wait until you are two towns over in a sound-proof basement.

Visiting this house made me sad.  A Scanner Darkly filled me with the very same despair.

A Scanner Darkly takes you into the world of addicts living in a broken-down house in California. The house is pure junkie chic – couch with the stuffing coming out of it, filthy, cluttered counter tops, bugs (real or imagined) and a sign that reads, “Keep On Keeping On.”

The addicts in question are the sociopathic conspiracy theorist Barris (Robert Downey, Jr.), dazed and confused Luckman (Woody Harrelson) and addled everyman Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves). They are visited by the twitchy Freck (Rory Cochrane) and the comely coke addict Donna (Winona Ryder).

There’s a twist in this downward spiral tale – Arctor is a narc. Or he is a cop posing as a junkie who is actually a junkie who posing as a cop. Maybe.


In this world set a scant “seven years from now,” 20 per cent of the U.S. population is addicted. A new drug called Substance D is particularly insidious – described as “slow death from the head down.” Arctor, the narc, is attempting to find the big D dealers. Arctor, the junkie, is taking the drug by the big handful.

As a result, his mind is splitting in two, the right and left hemispheres of his brain are at war. Every more mind-rifting, he’s being asked to investigate himself. In this new world order, the narcs wear ‘scramble suits’ that shift endlessly between faces to obscure their true identities.

As Arctor’s mind fractures, he watches himself on closed circuit camera.

The war against drugs will eat itself.

Using the same interpolated rotoscope animation technique used in the sublime Waking Life, director Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused) has yet again created something visceral, affecting, wise and somehow incredibly beautiful. Based on the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name, this animated movie is the pure, undiluted delivery of the gloom, humour, loneliness, drama and attraction of addiction.

I will leave you with a few words from the downward spiral testament:

“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 in me constantly, and I can count on nothing.”

* * * *

100 minutes

Rated R for drugs, so many drugs, sex but not much sex, language (mostly in every hilarious, inhumane thing Barris says) and brief violence

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