The first sentence of Wikipedia’s plot summary for A Scanner Darkly reads: “The United States has lost the war on drugs.” It’s a pithy, superficial summation of the film’s setting, and a disastrous misread of its narrative. A Scanner Darkly is about a very much ongoing “war on drugs,” the callous way it churns through human lives in its pursuit of victory, and its instigation of a world where corporations fight addicts with one hand while creating them with another. The “war on drugs” isn’t over in this film. It’s never going to be over.
A Scanner Darkly has a remarkably clear-eyed view of “war on drugs” politics and capital. Early on we hear a mention that 20% of the population is now addicted to drugs, followed immediately by the statement that “one company is helping.” It’s a very Paul Verhoeven dystopia here, with the state violence of policing inextricable from the machine of capitalism. The former is just one branch of the latter, the enforcement arm of the great American corporation. By the end of A Scanner Darkly, we learn that the “one company” that’s “helping” is actually manufacturing the country’s most popular and dangerous drug. Getting people addicted is their way of generating slave labor for their “rehab” facilities, which generate more of the drug, and cycling on and on forever. Grim stuff! And hardly outside the realm of possibility.
I wouldn’t call A Scanner Darkly a particularly sensitive depiction of addiction, though. Much of the film is devoted to the bumbling antics of its central addict characters. One’s twitchy and dissociative, one’s an animated asshole, one’s a spacey dummy. They’re all familiar Linklater archetypes, and their misadventures recall plenty of the director’s other films. While these character types can be fun for slacking stoners, I think Linklater missteps by applying them to people victimized by a capricious corporate agenda, people whose only destiny is suicide or slavery. The film has a little bit of a tone problem because of this. While it makes a strong case in the end, there’s too much Linklaterian ambling and rambling on the way there.
And yet…..discussion of A Scanner Darkly must come with an “and yet.” The film’s Wikipedia page lays out in typically blase fashion the terrible treatment of the animators on this production, from being forced to work 18-hour days to being locked out of the office while out on lunch and having their contributions to the film diminished in their official credits. This is a film about capitalist abuse built on capitalist abuse. I can’t talk about this film without talking about that fact. These artists were mistreated and then disposed of in the exact same way that the police in the film mistreat and then dispose of Keanu Reeves’ character. It’s a disturbing parallel.
I liked A Scanner Darkly. I liked its rotoscoped animation, I liked its thematic aims, I liked Reeves (as always). But the facts of its production are unavoidable, especially when they hew so closely to things the film decries. I wish this post could be more positive. There’s a lot to like about this film. I just can’t see past the people it stepped on to get itself made.