In Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly, Keanu Reeves plays "Agent Fred," an undercover officer in America's war on drugs. He's so deeply undercover that he's become a drug addict himself, losing touch with reality. So the irony is painful when Agent Fred is ordered to focus his investigation on one junkie in particular … himself.
Sound a bit familiar? Like Ridley Scott's Blade Runner and Steven Spielberg's Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly is based on the science fiction of Philip K. Dick. All three introduce us to law enforcement officers who begin by tracking criminals and end up running from the law, dismayed at what they're learning about themselves.
But where Blade Runner and Minority Report borrowed the main ideas and added all kinds of violence and thrills, Linklater's movie is actually faithful to Dick's novel. A Scanner Darkly is true to Dick's disillusioned, drug-addled, deadbeat characters. It's a much more thoughtful film—challenging, meditative, and sad, just the way Dick intended it.
Scanner focuses on the small Anaheim community in which Agent Fred pretends to be a dealer. His "friends" are mopey slackers, tormented by the distortions brought on by a cruel, enslaving drug called "Substance D." (The "D" may stand for death, disintegration, or despair.) "You're either on it," says addict James Barris, "or you haven't tried it."
As his brain reels with foolish fantasies, Barris (Robert Downey Jr.) lectures others on things he knows nothing about—guns, the chemistry of narcotics, and government conspiracies. He has a captive audience. Wide-eyed and paranoid, Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson) is a typical southern California stoner, prone to freaking out. But Luckman is stable compared to Charles ...1