Banksy once opined, "I need someone to protect me from all the measures they take in order to protect me." There's a shade of that sentiment to A Scanner Darkly, Richard Linklater's rotoscoped, philosophical science fiction stoner movie, based on a story by Philip K. Dick. Do the government have a right to choose what drugs you do or do not use? And should they hold you responsible for the things you do as a result of addiction and altered states of mind? Either way, do you want them watching you while you're in bed?
In the America of A Scanner Darkly, the concepts of open democracy have been completely reversed: every aspect of your life is available for scrutiny by the authorities, while they remain anonymous even to one another. This leads to the strange situation of an undercover narcotics agent with the codename of 'Fred' (Keanu Reeves) being assigned to investigate a shady character called Robert Arctor, even though Arctor is actually Fred's own undercover identity. Fred takes the opportunity to invasively monitor his own home because he doesn't want someone else to end up doing it, and also because it may help him get to the bottom of the psychotic scheming of his friend and housemate Barris (Robert Downey Jr). At least, that's what Fred tells himself in his more lucid moments. You see, Fred has become addicted to the dangerous drug he's supposed to be tracking down, and he's starting to genuinely have trouble understanding that Arctor and Fred are not actually two separate people.
A Scanner Darkly curves to an interesting arc - essentially following the course of drug abuse from hilarious highs to tragic self-loss. Much of the movie consists of Arctor and his friends getting up to all sorts of drug-addled high jinks in downtrodden suburbia, before the turning point when Fred discovers that his drug abuse may have caused irreparable brain damage. It's a strange feel to the film really, as it slowly transitions from light-hearted to bittersweet, while the whole time producing quick-fire, witty dialogue that veers between the high-brow and the nonsensical and various mixtures of the two.
Downey Jr's Barris deserves special mention. If I never thought of Downey as an especially good actor before, I do now. Barris is a character who's extremely charismatic in his thoughtlessness and strangely brilliant in his stupidity. We see many different sides to this man, for example when informing on Arctor to Fred, or when making "for approximately 61 cents of ordinary household materials, the perfect home-made silencer" which actually succeeds in making the gunshot louder, or when idly watching a friend almost choke to death before lecturing him:
Alright, I'm gonna give you a little feedback since you seem to be proceeding through life like a cat without whiskers perpetually caught behind the refrigerator. Your life and watching you live it is like a gag-reel of ineffective bodily functions. I swear to god that a toddler has a better understanding of the intricacies of chew-swallow-digest-don't kill yourself on your TV dinner! And yet you've managed to turn this near death fuck-up of yours into a moral referendum on me!
A Scanner Darkly is certainly not everyone's cup of tea. But if you're looking for a psychedelic combination of the clever and the dumb, the low-key and the world-changing, the humorous and the serious - and let's face it, who isn't? - then look no further.