A Scanner Darkly is directed by Richard Linklater, the guy who gave us Boyhood. Not known to many, this film. It sort of slipped through the cracks. It features Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr, Woody Harrelson and Winona Ryder, to name a few. This is well before Downey Jr became Iron Man. The visuals of this film have been rendered to look like an animated film. Nice technique, makes you feel very stoned. It’s a great movie about a world where the USA has over 20% of its population crazily addicted to drugs. Drug usage and distribution is rampant, a drug called Substance D. Keanu plays an undercover cop, a special kind of undercover cop who has this funky suit called the scramble suit. The suit constantly changes appearance and has a voice modulator which makes it impossible to say who is under there. The mission of the undercover operatives is to find out who’s the manufacturer of Substance D and take them down. The film has a neat storyline, a little confusing, but very neat. Here’s the film A Scanner Darkly explained.
Right, so, the film has twists leading to a climax. Spoilers ahead. I’m going to lay the plot down chronologically. This kills the theatrics but makes it a lot easier to understand.
Substance D is manufactured (from little blue flowers) and distributed by a company called New Path. The catch in the film is that New Path is the same company that runs a gigantic rehab institution for victims of Substance D usage. This is shown only at the end. The undercover cop squad is trying to get evidence against New Path and take them down. Hence they plot an undercover operation within an undercover operation. Two of the top people involved in this operation are Audrey (Winona Ryder) and Mike.
They get officer Fred (secretive name, played by Keanu) to go undercover and mingle with a gang of users. Fred reports to his senior Hank. Both Fred and Hank are operatives under the scramble suit. Fred goes by the name of Bob Arctor within the dealing gang. Hank is actually not a guy, it’s Audrey who is also undercover as Donna in the dealing gang (We don’t get to know this till the very end). Bob Arctor and Donna are interested in each other. Fred doesn’t know that Hank is actually Audrey. However, Audrey knows who Fred is because they hand pick him for the operation. Too confusing? Let’s summarize.
The premise and characters:
- Fred is undercover as Bob Arctor
- Fred’s boss is Hank
- Hank is actually Audrey
- Audrey is undercover as Donna
- Fred doesn’t know Hank’s identity
- Audrey/Hank/Donna knows Fred/Arctor’s identity
- Fred/Arctor is later referred to as Bruce at New Path
What is the undercover within the undercover operation?
- Fred/Arctor/Bruce is planned to be used for getting into New Path
- Fred/Arctor/Bruce doesn’t know about this New Path plan
- Audrey/Hank/Donna knows about this and is using Fred/Arctor/Bruce
- The plan is to get Fred/Arctor/Bruce addicted just enough and get him admitted to New Path
Wondering about the colours? There are many names for the same person in this movie so …
I will refer to Keanu’s character as Fred in his scramble suit cop scenes, as Arctor in his undercover scenes and as Bruce in his New Path scenes (Marked in Green).
I will refer to Winona’s character as Audrey in her cop scenes, as Hank in her scramble suit cop scenes and as Donna in her undercover scenes (Marked in Orange).
The film starts off with a guy named Charles Freck shown to be hallucinating because of overuse of Substance D. He sees bugs crawling all over him. He gets admitted to the New Path rehab centre. This has no direct relevance to the plot, this is just to show how the reaction to the drug can be. The story then focuses on Fred who is shown to be an operative under the scramble suit. Fred is having a little bit of a problem thinking straight and struggles with the speech he’s giving at a meeting. This is because Fred is himself on light doses of Substance D. As part of his act of being Arctor, he needs to consume the drug to gain the trust of the gang. Bob Arctor’s gang includes Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson), James Barris (Robert Downey Jr) and of course, Donna. Luckman and Barris are completely oblivious to the fact that Donna or Arctor are undercover cops. The gang is made to believe that Donna is the main supplier of Substance D. Arctor is instructed to monitor Donna, but grows to like her. Donna appears to like Arctor too but Arctor is not “getting any”. Obviously, because Donna is only playing the part of Arctor’s girlfriend (the audience doesn’t know this yet). Arctor is looking to know Donna’s supplier so he can go higher up the drug chain.
Fred is told by Hank to monitor Bob Arctor. Basically, Fred has to monitor himself using surveillance. Arctor’s house is the center of importance as that is where the gang hangs out. Arctor’s character is written out to be a person whose wife and children have left him. Arctor now lives in his house which is frequented by the gang. The gang is shown to meet and have really trippy conversations – like the one about the cycle and how many gears it has. Fred is being asked to take a series of tests at work. During the tests they tell him that his consumption of Substance D is causing a possible bilateral dysfunction. The two halves of his brain are competing for dominance. This could cause hallucinations or linguistic dysfunctions (like the one Fred suffers at the speech he gives). Fred also identifies a sheep’s image in place of a dog’s during the test. The female doc mentions Fred should keep up his sense of humour. Fred even asks how he could score on Donna, the doc suggests getting flowers, little blue flowers.
At Hank’s office Barris has made a visit as an informant. Barris claims he has information that Arctor is part of a covert terrorist drug organization. He also mentions Miss Donna Hawthorne is part of it. (Little does Barris know that he is talking to Hank who is Donna under the scramble suit and that Fred is Arctor under the suit). He also mentions Arctor is an addict and is addicted to Substance D. Barris wants to surrender and come to the side of law enforcement but they show him out.
The gang continues to meet and have more trippy conversations – about a gun silencer. When on a car journey, Arctor is unable to slow the car down and they almost crash. When they switch off the engine and pull to the side they notice that the link nut has been messed around with and is the reason why the car wasn’t slowing down. There is no information of who may have sabotaged the car – Barris? Not sure. Barris also admits that he has left the front door of their house unlocked AND has left a note on the door – “Come on in, the door’s unlocked”. He has done this because if anyone opens the front door, cameras would start recording. Of course it’s so brilliant, it’s moronic. When they get back home, they observe a recently smoked weed stick and start freaking out that someone has broken in. The cameras have not recorded anything. They suspect that someone may have hidden drugs in the house and called the cops on them. The conversation about selling the house and running away is hilarious after this. It turns out that Donna had smoked a joint and got to sleep.
Later Barris and Luckman get into an apparent physical fight interrupted by Arctor followed by many other trippy conversations about “Catch Me If You Can”. Later when Fred is watching the surveillance cameras installed at his house, Luckman is choking to death while Barris is not bothered. Barris takes his own sweet time to call 911. Barris just wants out and make away clean, and hopes to incarcerate Arctor and Donna – he hopes that this would be his “Get Out of Jail Free Card”. Meanwhile Freck decides to kill himself by overdosing on Substance D, only to be trapped in a long-ass hallucination involving an extraterrestrial reading out his sins over an apparent duration of 100,000 hours. Ouch!
Arctor tries to make out with Donna and she gives some bunch of random excuses. Arctor gets annoyed and leaves. Donna tries to apologize but it’s weak, she can’t some up with a proper reason and Arctor leaves. He ends up bringing a prostitute named Connie back to his room and makes out with her instead. He suddenly sees Donna instead of Connie in his bed and it goes back to being Connie. Arctor’s use of Substance D starts having more and more hallucinating effects on him. Fred’s mind is so confused that even when he sees the recorded footage he’s seeing Connie and Donna do the switch. Fred is called to have a few more tests done. This time the docs are different from the last time. They cover his eyes and give him objects to feel in each hand and state if they are identical or not. He is unable to. They ask Fred for another blood test. Just as Fred is about to leave his two new docs become the two earlier docs. So looks like he’s having more trouble and is confusing many people’s faces. Arctor goes back home and is shown to slowly lose grip on reality. Further tests on Fred show that his dominant left hemisphere is getting damaged and the right hemisphere is trying to compensate and this is causing the crosscutting.
Barris presents a tape which allegedly has Arctor communicating with some terrorists discussing about drugs and guns. It’s a fake tape. Hank tells Barris that he will impound the evidence and keep Barris in custody for his own safety. Things go south for Barris and is taken away. Hank tells Fred about his report, that he is completely messed up in the head. Hank tells Fred that they will be levying a penalty on him for willingly consuming and getting addicted to Substance D. Hank also mentions “From the information you brought in, sounds like you and Donna are pretty close”. Fred responds with “Yes, we are. How’d you know that?”. Hank indicates here that he has found out that Fred is Arctor under the scramble suit by process of elimination. Hank tells Arctor that it was Barris they were after and not him. He was just being used. Hank acts like he calls Donna and tells her to come get Arctor and take him to New Path for rehab. In the changing room, Hank removes his scramble suit to reveal that he is actually Donna and she takes Arctor to New Path and admits him there and says goodbye.
Time passes, Arctor is more vegetable like, simply repeating what people say. Charles Freck is there too at New Path. After a while Arctor gets a transfer to work with plants. They give him a new name – Bruce. Bruce is told that he will now live on the farm and will be allowed visits only during special days – like Thanksgiving or Christmas. This field that Bruce is to work on is where the blue flower is grown. Substance D is made from these little blue flowers. New Path gets the brain dead folks to work here because they can’t see the flowers or perceive them to be the raw material for Substance D. This way the news will never go out. New Path can continue producing and circulating Substance D, get people for rehab and use them to make more Substance D.
Donna, now referred to as Audrey, is shown talking to the fellow cop (Mike) about their plan. Audrey tells Mike about how no one suspects their plan. However, Audrey also feels that their plan of getting Fred addicted and getting him into New Path was as cold as New Path using substance abusers to grow their drugs. She hopes that Bruce can manage to pull through and have a few of his brain cells recover enough so he can collect the evidence and give it out. She wants out. Mike comforts her saying that all this sacrifice is for the betterment of the future.
Back at New Path, Bruce is working the fields. He suddenly sees the blue flowers between the crops. This is how New Path is keeping this a secret. One of the management folks from New Path looks at Bruce and says that he can’t see the flowers, but they are still there. He asks Bruce to get back to work. However, Bruce continues to see the flowers and takes one and hides it in his shoes and says “I saw death rising from the earth … from the ground itself … in one blue field. A present for my friends… at Thanksgiving”. This means that his brain cells are active enough to collect the evidence. But would he be able to keep and deliver the evidence during Thanksgiving when he meets one of the agents? We don’t know.
Barry is a technologist who helps start-ups build successful products. His love for movies and production has led him to write his well-received film explanation and analysis articles to help everyone appreciate the films better. He’s regularly available for a chat conversation on his website and consults on storyboarding from time to time.
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