28. A Scanner Darkly

AScannerDarkly1Keanu Reeves is spectacular. He can do something like Johnny Mnemonic, so bad and accidentally brilliant, and then turn around and be a perfectly believable action hero in Speed, or a messianic mutterer in The Matrix Revolutions. One might consider his Bob Arctor/Fred to be the ultimate Reeves-role, the burnt out and existential undercover cop/drug addict who alternates aimlessness and confusion.

But after finally seeing Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, I understand why the rest of the world doesn’t see Keanu Reeves the same way I do. You watch him in interviews and you think, this guy’s definitely unique — to a different drummer, if you must — but he’s a deep thinker and is rather monklike in many respects. Spiritual, philosophical, and not corruptible like other unique, drummer actors.

But with Bill and Ted, it was a total Tupac scenario. After Juice, no amount of Janet Jackson* could reverse the image of Bishop, of Tupac as a murderous sociopath. That he became such a thing was prophesied in his own music, because he understood the fate of the young black male from South Central in the 80s and 90s, no matter where he ended, whether the same streets or Hollywood. Keanu Reeves’s tale isn’t so violent (it is tragic though), but his major film debut was so iconic, it cemented him as a burnt out hippie.

A Scanner Darkly is like the dramatic equal, and just as Bill and Ted was otherworldly in its lightness, this Philip K. Dick adaptation is crushing in its darkness. It is a heavy, heavy film, although certainly there are more tragic drug addiction movies. In fact, we barely see any drug-use at all. With this movie, it’s the culture, and the people typically associated with it (or trapped by it). However, this book is highly autobiographical, without being explicitly so, and the story carries this personal weight, filtered through scifi with a touch of anger, but mostly sadness. The end credits reflect the epilogue exactly, and it’s the perfect, heartbreaking capstone to an emotional ride.

Bob Arctor is undercover in a den of losers all addicted to Substance D. He’s looking for the source, but his investigation is complicated by the drug, whose side effect creates a split personality. He begins to dissociate, and forgets that Fred is just a cover, and not his true self.

What begins as high-concept, a science-fiction extrapolation of psychedelic substance abuse, follows through from hilarious set piece to creepy and sad, and ends in an equally high-concept ending, which I’ve spoken about before, so I won’t spoil it here.

This film’s inclusion here is ¾ appreciation for the Philip K. Dick story, which is adapted very faithfully here by Linklater, and the rest is said director’s approach. Not only Waking Life rotoscoping to capture the trip, but the pitch perfect casting. I do love Keanu Reeves, but I also really like Woody Harrelson and Robert Downey Jr. as Luckman and Barris.

Although not always mentioned among the favorite Dick adaptations, simply because it went kind of under the radar, it’s often considered one of the better scifi films of the 2000s. It’s funny, tragic, disturbing, playful. It’s a thinker, and it’s also a movie where Keanu Reeves is deconstructed and remade. Maybe it’s my own bias, but that breaks my heart.

*I didn’t even realize when writing that, but Keanu Reeves makes a cameo appearance in Poetic Justice. I missed it.

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