Richard Linklater/USA/2006; R4
Warner Bros, NZ$34.95 | Reviewed by Mythily Meher

A PSYCHOLOGICAL story, like a psychological experiment, presents experience compressed. Life razored down to particular essences on which the volume is turned up, up, up. Philip K. Dick wrote A Scanner Darkly in 1977. The story finds inspiration in the paranoia of the Nixon period, in the scrunchy throes of 50s drug culture of which Dick himself was a part, in addiction, suspicion, identity, surveillance, counter-surveillance, all of which find form in protagonist Bob Arctor’s fluxing relationships to drugs, his colleagues, his friends and him self. Sci-fi genre aside, it seems it is the autobiographical qualities of this story make it soar.

Richard Linklater’s faithful adaptation of the novel sees it blossom on-screen like a creamily textured headtrip. The plot sneaks cat-like from Arctor’s clean-cut day job as a spy and narcotics agent to his parallel world on the ratty fringes of Orange County suburbia, saturated by the colourful wasting and wastedness of his code-D addict friends. In character, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson and Rory Cochrane, bring strobe-light drug-fucked edge to bathetic back and forthing. Even without the scramble suits that conceal the identity of narcotics officials from each other, these guys are obsessively mistrustful, ever wary of being susceptible to a knife in the back, or worse, the back’s back. The latter being where Arctor’s slowly splitting sense of self finds him.

What the DVD Special Features contribute to the digestion of this exceptional (though imperfect) film is thickly relevant. The Weight of the Line skates not quite close enough to technicality to indulge animation aficionados, but makes a strong conceptual case for the rotoscoped nature of the movie. Indeed, the effect of painting over the scenes, so that real life seems to float blurrily in fantasy formaldehyde, echoes emotively the film’s intellectual concerns. One Summer in Austin is a pretty meaty ‘making of’ that includes clips of Dick himself relating incidents from his life close to the heart of the novel during a Sci-fi convention in 1977. His daughters too make appearances in the extras and vouch their support of Linklater’s project. All the conversations and ponderings presented here and on the DVD commentary are thoughtful and non-gratuitous, sometimes political and personal in one breath. There is a poignant moment, on the DVD commentary, during a scene where Bob Arctor – haggard, sleep-rumpled – staggers through the house and creeps into a recollection of his former life. It is pastel, and picket fenced. Two girls, sisters, enter the frame and Linklater exclaims to Isa Dick Hackett “that must be you and your sister...”

The best fiction is terrifyingly founded in fact. Dick, who like Arctor backed out of frothy suburban bliss for the spiky frenetica of collective bachelordom and drug-use, brings this into effect. After all, the hackles-up climate of fear and surveillance that characterises dystopic Orange County, is only a stones throw in space and time from right here, right now.