Richard Linklater's films buzz with incessant talk. Whether riffing on The Smurfs, conspiracy theories, Aerosmith or Dostoyevsky, his characters yearn to express their idiosyncratic perceptions.
Linklater's 1991 debut, Slacker, seems to emanate from another planet, a gritty, meandering anomaly that could only have been borne in a place like Austin, Tex. Dazed and Confused (1993) was a big leap in terms of production values and conventional narrative, but it was still rife with authentic characters who can't help but react to the world in which they live — in this case, the final day of high school in 1976.
Linklater has made eight films since, and with the exception of last year's Bad News Bears (an unnecessary remake) and 1998's The Newton Boys (a gallant but inert genre indulgence), each has its unique pleasures, the mark of a guy who refuses to give in to expectation. Who else could (or would) have made The School of Rock (2003) and Before Sunset (2004) back to back?
Now comes A Scanner Darkly, a remarkably faithful adaptation of Philip K. Dick's prophetic, surveillance-infested mind-fuck of a novel about drugs and consciousness. The setting is "seven years from now" in suburban Orange County, Calif. Keanu Reeves plays Bob Arctor, an undercover cop who's slowly losing himself to Substance D, a mysterious drug that alters your brain beyond repair.
Once married with kids, Arctor now spends his days in a chemical-induced haze with buddies Jim (a wonderfully manic Robert Downey Jr.), Ernie (Woody Harrelson) and Charles (Rory Cochrane). Then there's Donna (a dirty-blonde Winona Ryder), Arctor's dealer/girlfriend who has an aversion to physical contact and whose real identity — like virtually everyone else in the film — is in question.
A Scanner Darkly is presented in the same style as Linklater's Waking Life (2001), an existentialist's wet dream that employed a technique called rotoscoping, which has animators painstakingly illustrate over live-action footage.
The effect is colorfully surreal without being completely foreign, perfect for Dick's paranoid world of shifting realities.
The technique is especially successful when rendering Bob's police uniform, or "scramble suit," aptly described in the film as a "vague blur." (Any attempt at further description would be lame in comparison to its glorious, psychedelic visual effect.)
"I was really attracted to the material," Reeves says during a recent press conference at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif. "It's got a lot to offer to the viewer. It's a cautionary commentary to the world that we live in. That was the grand inspiration. And as a character, it's very interesting to play someone who wants to change their life."
Reeves sits at a small table with Linklater and Ryder. Two big microphones take in their responses, which range from meandering to abrupt. In person, Reeves comes off more articulate than his screen persona would suggest, answering questions with a wry smile and a deadpan wit.
Ryder is the opposite, shyly responding in a manner so earnest — she actually tries to address someone who asks about the nature of truth — that her tablemates often feel compelled to help her along. It seems she's out of practice at such endeavors.
It's been a rough decade to date, her career stalled by surreal, self-induced events that would be right at home in a Dick story. Clad in a black pantsuit, dark hair bound tightly to her head, Ryder remains as adorable as ever some 20 years after Lucas announced her presence.
"I didn't think about it," Ryder says when asked if she approached the film any differently knowing it would eventually be altered by animators. "Because in Waking Life — which is really one of my favorite movies of all time — I thought the performances came through with so much subtlety. So just seeing that, I knew what this was going to be."
Dick's dark, caustically humorous visions appeal to Reeves.
"He tells great stories," he says. "I relate to the situations I find his characters in. I love his writing. He's wickedly funny. He's got brutal irony. There seems to be stories about, not the little guy, but people in situations that all of a sudden aren't what they seem. His stories tell about the fights of the individual against forces beyond their control, and then being manipulated by them."
Reeves gets animated, refusing to be interrupted by another question.
"He tells really good romantic stories. He writes really cool women. There's a kind of flesh and blood to them. People are greedy, people are angry, people are needy, people are scared. I relate to the worlds that he writes."
Linklater, who largely gives ground to his stars, eventually contributes to the conversation with expected clarity.
"Philip K. Dick is always asking, 'What is reality?' And I think this technique (rotoscoping) puts your brain in the right place to take in this particular story," he says. "Because it seems real, you recognize these people. It sounds real. Their gestures are real. It seems like the real world, but it's not. This is a painted world. It's probably the right kind of split-brain thing going on in your head as you watch it. Hopefully you just take it in like a movie and you care about the people the same way, if not more than you would with live-action."
"I felt it was so emotional, as Waking Life was as well," Ryder says. "And I don't know what rotoscoping is, but I felt somehow really moved."
As much as any film in recent memory, A Scanner Darkly nails our current climate of unease, reveling in its psychologically disorienting visual and thematic concerns.
"It was really weird at the time (of filming) watching the news because there were things happening," Ryder says. "To me it's really eerie how relevant it is, politically and socially. I'm really happy to be part of a movie like that, aside from just loving the movie as a personal story. I thought Philip K. Dick was really on the money when he wrote it. It's amazing what he predicted."
"It is funny," Linklater says, "Philip K. Dick 30 years ago writing this, he was kind of a crackpot from the margins. Paranoid, conspiracies, blah, blah, blah. That, plus a generation, equals reality." ©