The Costs of A SCANNER DARKLY’s Endless Wartime

The moral consequences of an invisible war.

Seven years from now, a man named Mike (Dameon Clarke) will buy lunch at General Burger and sit down across from a woman named Audrey (Winona Ryder). He will be glad to see her. They’ll talk about a coworker who had to be checked into rehab for a drug problem and hope he’ll turn out ok. They will contemplate the war they have been waging against a horrific foe. Mike will keep looking over his shoulder. Audrey will admit to being haunted by her own evil actions, necessary though they were. Mike will share his hope that God is transmuting evil into good through their actions. Together, they will ponder the rot of their souls, and hope that they’re right about the nature of their enemy, that what they have done, are doing, and will do matters.

They are right. And it does matter. New-Path, a massive rehab corporation, presents itself to the world as a shining beacon in dark times. It is running a massive con game. They claim to be the only ones who can successfully treat addiction to Substance D, an enigmatic, addictive and highly drug. Because of this, they have been accorded special treatment by the police, and granted an unprecedented level of privacy and power for a public corporation. In the death flails of America’s catastrophic drug war, amidst the unchecked spread of Substance D, New-Path is held up as a shining beacon and profits from it. But under the other cup? They are the ones manufacturing and distributing the drug. Their most damaged patients become an amiable, easily controlled slave labor force. Their goal, beyond getting filthy rich, is to make Substance D addiction so prevalent that it becomes the addicts’ God. Every new addict means more power ceded to New-Path, and eventually, more slaves to manufacture more Substance D in an endless, horrifying circle of graft and power. New-Path must be stopped, no matter the ways and means.

But, just as the police’s hidden war against New-Path matters, the ways and means by which that war is waged matter as well. And Richard Linklater’s 2006 film A Scanner Darkly, an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s 1977 novel of the same name, is deeply concerned with their consequences.

Like Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales, (which I wrote a bit about last week) A Scanner Darkly is set in a dystopian America. Its dysopia did not arise from the cruel whims of a powerful idiot. Nor do its citizens aggressively pretend everything is normal, as so many in Southland Tales do. Instead, malaise dominates the world. The embers of the lost drug war have coalesced into quiet ineffectuality. The police employ undercover officers like protagonist Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) to both fight Substance D and speak to men’s’ lodges about how they are fighting the drug. Dubiously ethical mass surveillance is common, but it is only as potent as the exhausted, overextended, outright bored cops assigned to do the surveilling. Troublemakers are tased and shoved into black vans, but only if they’re particularly blatant (The troublemaker in question is played by Austin’s notorious conspiracy-hawking jackass Alex Jones. It is cathartic to see him get knocked unconscious.) Most folks either resign themselves to lives of bland desperation or turn to hard drugs. 

Those who opt for the drugs destroy themselves in pursuit of brief moments of meaning and beauty. As Arctor himself puts it while ruminating on how he came to be an undercover cop surveilling himself and plunging into Substance D addiction:

I realized I didn’t hate the cabinet door, I hated my life. My house, my family, my backyard, my power mower. Nothing would ever change; nothing new could be expected. It had to end, and it did. Now in the dark world where I dwell, ugly things, and surprising things, and sometimes little wondrous things, spill out in me constantly, and I can count on nothing.

Everything in A Scanner Darkly’s world is stuck in molasses. The police cannot get anywhere in their investigation of Substance D. The public face of New-Path is endless sponsored lodge speeches and callous rehab workers who hold their charges in open contempt. Bob Arctor and his drug buddies (Woody Harrelson, Rory Cochrane and a hilarious, terrifying post-sobriety, pre-Iron Man Robert Downey, Jr.) amble about on misadventure after misadventure, talking about bike gears and building homemade silencers that only make the gun louder, even as they fall ever more thoroughly apart and lose themselves in addiction. There is nothing to do but keep on ambling through life. New-Path capitalizes on this nation-wide despairing shrug to implement their plans for Substance D. The few police who suspect the truth must take drastic measures to have any hope of making any kind of progress against the conspiracy. And those measures irreversibly damage their souls.

The police need an inside man at New-Path. But the company is so paranoid and so cautious that the only mole who would be at all viable is a genuine burn-out, someone utterly broken with enough instinct left to bring back proof. So, they systematically annihilate Bob Arctor until he’s a shell of a man. Audrey poses as a drug dealer named Donna and intentionally strikes up an unhealthy pseudo-romantic relationship with Arctor, subtly pushing him to use more and more Substance D. Arctor’s frayed relationship with “Donna,” the disassociation induced by spying on himself at work and the paranoid life he lives with his rotten friends succeed in pushing him to a complete breakdown. Substance D all but obliterates Arctor’s mind and sense of self. But the plan works. Enough of Arctor remains in the husk that he recognizes that he is caring for the flowers that New-Path uses to make the drug. He takes one, and hides it, thinking of it as a gift for when he next sees his friends (including Mike, undercover at the New-Path facility where Arctor was initially admitted).

Audrey and Mike succeed, and they have a real shot at bringing down New-Path. But, Linklater argues, they have ruined themselves to do so. Mike cannot stop looking over his shoulder during the meeting, and Audrey is disgusted with herself. In her own words, she deliberately chose “to sacrifice someone, a living person, without them ever knowing it. I mean, if he’d understood, if he had volunteered... But he doesn’t know and he never did. He didn’t volunteer for this.” She tells Mike that she cannot sleep, and that, however necessary their actions are, she genuinely believes they are worse than New-Path. Even Mike, who is more confident in his actions, admits that what they’ve done won’t be remembered as a triumph:

…Our children’s children will never truly know this awful time that we have gone through and the losses we took. Well, maybe some footnote in a minor history book. A brief mention with no list of the fallen.

Audrey and Mike have fought their hidden, seemingly endless war until their breakthrough with Arctor. They may well win. But, Linklater’s film argues, the cost will not be negated by that victory. They have done horrendous things. And there is no recourse for their actions but to live with them.