Directors are like athletes. The best ones are all stars capable of extraordinary last minute heroics, and most are just bench warmers who occasionally just get the job done. Some of these all stars however have little slumps, and even if they're not in a slump you can't help but feel they can do better. Richard Linklater hasn't exactly been in a slump, but I wouldn't say he's been really working up to his full potential, that is until I saw Through a Scanner Darkly. This is his 50 point, 3-home run, 4-touchdown, etc game. His glorious vision, a film that seems to incorporate all his previous best elements, but so much more that hadn't even been imagined before.
The film is ambitious by nearly any standards. Sure its style might not be "new" coming after the previous Waking Life, but that's hardly the point. Linklater expands his time frame, working within a much longer period than the general one-day time frame he typically allows himself. He also boldly goes where he's never gone before, the future, albeit a not too distant one. He's also found one hell of a source in Phillip K. Dick's original novel. Dick's previous film adventures have been in a much more distant future, and were handled as big budgeted A-list Hollywood projects. Linklater embues Dick's work with the independent do-it-yourself attitude you generally don't associate with Dick's work. The special effects aren't computer generated cities or high tech gadgets of the future. Instead the frills are all handled through drawing, and for my money the quality of animation is a step up from where Waking Life started. It may also be because whereas Waking Life was a somewhat interesting but ultimately flawed and repetitive experiment, Scanner is a visionary masterpiece through and through.
Now I can't really tell if it was the animation or not, but I don't think Keannu Reeves has ever been better on film. He's very typically been a laughed at "actor" who everyone on earth for some reason seems to have a problem with, but I've generally thought he was underrated. I hope that if people see this film, they may also start to join my one man campaign. Of course it is "him" acting, because like Waking Life this was shot with live action, and animated over, which may sound a little pointless to people at first glance. However the blurred lines, and distorted perspective offered by the animation, give the film a necessary drug induced feel to it that would not be possible through regular live action film. Robert Downey Jr. plays a Linklater archetype. An eccentric who talks extremely fast, and at least acts like he knows everything there is to know about everything. Luckily for us he is dealt with somewhat comically and his theories are constantly being proven wrong. However his over the top literary dialogue does get to wear thin on your nerves after awhile.
The film does have many current themes that make it almost unnecessary to set it 7 years from now. The whole notion of the sacrificial lamb, or baiting the big fish to catch the bigger fish is nothing new. The concept that a government influenced corporation can not only make itself above the law, but also be the ones behind the countries greatest epidemic. Dick was certainly implicating high officials as being possible perpetrators of the drug supply in his book. Linklater simply rides along with it, and although the drug may have a new name, it could be any previously addictive substance. The government can control the supply, and also work to employ law enforcement officers to make the public think that there actually is a fight going on. An interesting concept to think the budget for law enforcement can be funded by drug money.
Agent Fred is a scapegoat, and we become personally afflicted when we see his deterioration. We want to believe he's not taking anything, that he's doing his job the way it should be done. We don't want to believe he is being made into a junky for "the greater good". More than just examining drug culture and the double talk surrounding it, the film is more about that human sacrifice. Albeit a much inferior film, there was a similar ethical issue raised by John Travolta's character in Swordfish, where he could justify killing one innocent to save a million more. Archer isn't an innocent necessarily, because he does willingly succumb to the drug, but we generally assume he wouldn't have become addicted had he not been put in his situation.
Linklater's film is filled with gems of ethics and critical thinking experiments. However it is also full of moments of unexpected warmth, humor, and deep felt emotion. In a later scene of the burned out Archer arriving in a clinic, I couldn't help but recall a similar scene in Darren Aronofsky's Requiem For a Dream, another slightly surreal drug addiction story. This is a film that will pleasantly sit alongside Linklater's best work, and be one that people will hopefully remember long after The Newton Boys fades from their mind.