A man under a variety of chemical influences is driving home when he notices a police car in his rear view mirror. The man imagines a violent death at the hands of the cop, so he pulls into a parking lot. The police car pulls up next to him, and he looks away, terrified. Then his attention turns to an empty jar sitting on his passenger seat. The man examines the jar, suspicious. Is this suspicion an artificial consequence of his drug-induced paranoia, or is that paranoia justified by the unexplained presence of the jar? What is that jar doing there, anyway? These are the sort of questions that drive A Scanner Darkly, Richard A. Linklater's adaptation of Philip K. Dick's novel. Like many of Linklater's best films, it's a labyrinth of unanswered and sometimes unspoken questions. I bring up the jar because if your response is "Who cares?" then you're likely to be very annoyed by the detours that A Scanner Darkly takes; on the other hand, if you let the movie sink in, then it's the kind of mindfuck that makes you breakfast the next morning.
Set in the near future, the film follows an undercover drug narc codenamed Fred (Keanu Reeves) whose identity is concealed even from his superiors by a "scramble suit" that constantly rearranges the details of his appearance. Fred is actually Bob Arctor, who spends his days posing as the drug user that he actually is. Arctor shares a house with the pseudophilosophical Barris (Robert Downey Jr.) and archetypal stoner Luckman (Woody Harrelson). The film follows the effects that drug use has on its characters, opening with twitchy Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane) being beseiged by aphids that only he can see (it's Freck that puzzles over the jar later on). The most prominent drug in the film is Substance D, a brain-splitting concoction that leaves Fred in the dark about which is his true self - the heroic officer of the law, or the aimless druggie. And worse, it isn't clear which he'd rather be.
The film is concerned with notions of identity and the ways that we escape ourselves - drugs, but also religion, routine, and junk culture. The irony, then, is how we can never quite shake the fears we hope to escape through self-medication - Freck, for instance, is at one point confronted by an alien who reads him his sins. And at any point, we can be suddenly yanked back towards our most basic truths; our willful desire to stay alive (the "no thanks" to God from Linklater's Waking Life), or the sting of unrequited desire evident in Fred's tenuous relationship with the elusive Donna (Winona Ryder). Like the look of the film itself, our perception is constantly shifting and readjusting along with the characters, for whom an object as simple as a used bicycle can trigger obsessive speculation. The cast, particularly the always-compelling Robert Downey Jr. as a living compendium of half-brilliant, half-insane theories, ably guides through Dick's hall of mirrors, and while A Scanner Darkly could have easily become didactic, it's instead a wonderful case of everyone involved serving a haunting, indelible vision of a future overrun with questionable ideas.
The smartest decision Linklater made in adapting Dick's book was to keep the author's vision of the future, which is still populated with the same strip malls and drive-thrus. The familiar banality makes the connections to the present (the constantly increasing presence of surveillance, the commodification of the self) all the more resonant, not just because it seems plausible but because it feels like we're already there. Yet this is not a defeatist statement; the final scene contains the promise that clarity, and by extension understanding, can still break free. I must admit that it took a while for A Scanner Darkly to properly sink in - my first impression was that the heart of the book had been lost in translation. But now I think that detachment is part of the film's design; in a season of cinema largely designed to placate us, it forces us to discover our own meaning. The heart is there, but it's ours to find; the effect is a potent cinematic high.