I wanted to give A Scanner Darkly a couple of days to steep in my brain before I went into a review. I felt like there was something that I just didn’t “get” about it, since I wasn’t as entirely blown away as I had been hoping. This isn’t to say that there isn’t anything worthwhile in the film, but I was more impressed with individuals sections, techniques, and characters, rather than the movie entire. So, why not start with the stuff I really liked.
1) Robert Downey frickin’ Jr:
RDJ’s performance is the best thing this movie has going for it. His character is a paranoid, intelligent, sociopathic drug addict, who is only kept in check by his opposing excesses. For example, he is charismatic and witty enough to get you to go along with anything he says, but it is done out of a fundamental self-consciousness and self-pity. He does what he does so that he will matter, even though he is smart enough to recognize that he is living in a drug hovel, surrounded by wastrel friends. His manner of speech, near-charming despicableness, and Downey’s devotion to doing it right make for one of his best performances.
2) The near-ending:
I won’t go into details, but near the end of the film, there’s a big reveal that I didn’t see coming. I didn’t even realize that there was a big reveal coming, which is the best kind of twist you can have.
3) The animation:
There aren’t not problems with the visual style of A Scanner Darkly. For starters, Winona Ryder’s hair often looks like a big solid lump of cartoon mush sitting on Ryder’s head. Most of the time, however, the animation has a displacing effect, where everything feels both real and surreal at the same time. We are floored by how realistic the animation looks, but we are not entirely surprised when we see the results of people hallucinating. It also facilitates a big part of the movie, the “everyman” suit that undercover police wear, which literally changes their appearance every second, making them nearly impossible to identify. In a conventional movie this aspect would have had to have been done in CGI, and probably would have looked dumb.
The movie’s treatment of drugs was a bit confusing. Throughout, there’s an underlying insinuation that drugs are bad (m’kay), but it’s not an out and out condemnation of their use. We see people whose lives are ruined by their use, but we also see some pretty trippy things that, I believe, we are meant to see as amusing. Simultaneously we are shown the destructive results of drug abuse while demonstrating why they are such a rush in the first place. The movie does lean a long ways toward the anti side of drug use, but it is intriguing to see those glimpses that make it seem tempting.
In re-reading a synopsis of this movie in order to remember certain parts, I keep coming across sections to which I respond with either “wait a minute, that didn’t happen” or “Ohhhhhh…. now I get it” or both. Not a whole lot is actually stated or confirmed about what’s going on until the very end. As the central character begins to lose grips on reality, so do we, and until the narrative voice is given to someone else, we just have to sit back, enjoy the experience, and hope that someone will clear this all up. By the end, that’s not really the case, and instead, one has to either read the book or focus on the things that one was sure about. In either case, I doubt it’s possible to really “get” A Scanner Darkly the first time around, but I doubt I liked it enough to watch it again soon.