For a while–during the film–A Scanner Darkly is a great film. It sets itself up as a significant examination of man’s identity and its relation to the people around him. It’s based on Philip K. Dick and that theme is one Dick used at least one other time (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?). When adapting the novel, which I haven’t read, I get the feeling Richard Linklater kept it a little too close, keeping summary storytelling. The film races through its last act, which is around eleven minutes long, and never solidifies the many excellent elements. They don’t quite disappear, they just don’t get the attention they deserve. For example, Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder have this wonderful relationship, which even endures a “surprise,” but Linklater doesn’t finish it up. It isn’t like he sacrifices it for anything. The problem with A Scanner Darkly is its length. It’s not long enough.
The film’s pseudo-animation style–Linklater filmed the actors, presumably together–then had computers draw over them, works perfectly for the film. Linklater doesn’t account for the style, however, which is probably a mistake. Besides certain special effects considerations, the style is appropriate because Darkly is about drug addiction and its effects. The style works as a visual representation of those effects. I imagine Linklater didn’t want to label the style, but it just seems another thing he withheld.
Where Linklater did good–wonderfully–was his casting and his directing of his actors. Keanu Reeves probably gives his best performance and there are these scenes between Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson… Linklater’s scenes about drug addicts are easily the best since Trainspotting, but he’s also got a great feel for the rest of the material, the alienation material. Throughout, the film’s scenes are, like I said, great. Winona Ryder is so good, I was wondering who was playing her role, as the animation made it possible it wasn’t her and she was so good, I couldn’t believe it was Ryder. The only acting problem is Linklater regular Rory Cochrane, who mugs for the camera. With one exception, an excellent scene, Cochrane’s bad when he’s alone. When he’s with other actors, he’s fine. Alone, he mugs the whole scene.
A Scanner Darkly ultimately fails. Actually, it ultimately achieves something more than mediocrity, but it does offer an excellent eighty-five minutes. Unfortunately, the film runs a hundred minutes (and should run around 135 minutes).
Directed by Richard Linklater; screenplay by Linklater, based on the novel by Philip K. Dick; director of photography, Shane F. Kelly; edited by Sandra Adair; music by Graham Reynolds; production designer, Bruce Curtis; produced by Anne Walker-McBay, Tommy Pallotta, Palmer West, Jonah Smith and Erwin Stoff; released by Warner Independent Pictures.
Starring Keanu Reeves (Bob Arctor), Robert Downey Jr. (Jim Barris), Woody Harrelson (Ernie Luckman), Winona Ryder (Donna Hawthorne) and Rory Cochrane (Charles Freck).