You can’t make a list of movies about the surveillance state without including at least one Philip K. Dick story. In the sci-fi novelist’s world (as depicted in films from Blade Runner to The Adjustment Bureau), shadowy operators who shape the destinies of others lurk in dark alleys, and even one’s own thoughts and memories are suspect, as they are subject to manipulation by outsiders. Identity and perception are always in flux. Surveillance is ubiquitous, but even the spies are spied upon.
That’s the case in this movie, where undercover narc Keanu Reeves infiltrates a gang distributing a hallucinogen called Substance D. A “scramble suit” allows him and other cops to disguise themselves completely. But the drug soon makes it impossible for him to sort out his own conflicting realities, and the distinction between the cops and the pushers soon becomes academic. As in other surveillance movies, everyone is implicated, and no one is innocent. Director Richard Linklater adds another layer of surreality by superimposing all his filmed actors with rotoscope-animated versions of themselves. Not only does this give the film a woozy, floating quality, but it serves as an additional reminder that you can’t trust your eyes to tell you the true identity of the person you’re looking at.
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