Starring Miles Robbins, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Sasha Lane, Mary Stuart Masterson
Written by Bryan DeLeeuw, Adam Egypt Mortimer
Directed by Adam Egypt Mortimer
I think everyone, at some point in their lives, had an imaginary friend in some way, shape, or form. It didn’t necessarily have to be an invisible entity that stuck by your side. It could’ve been the stuffed animal you slept with and were sure was watching over you. It could’ve been the toys you played with and brought to life with you self-created stories. For the most part, these figments are usually of a friendly variety. But Daniel Isn’t Real, the latest from Some Kind of Hate‘s Adam Egypt Mortimer, aims to prove that these visions may very well be the stuff of pure, and deadly, nightmares.
Based on Bryan Deleeuw’s novel In This Way I Was Saved, the film follows Luke (Robbins), a young man in college who, in his childhood, befriended an imaginary boy named Daniel (Schwarzenegger) after a traumatic event forces him to need some sort of coping mechanism. Years after being made to lock away Daniel, both metaphorically and literally, by his mother (Masterson), Luke sets him free, setting off a chain of events that is nothing short of phantasmagoric.
The film is produced by SpectreVision, the team behind last year’s smash hit Mandy, so it stands to reason that it has a certain aesthetic that follows their particular brand. Daniel Isn’t Real certainly ascribes to that but, oddly enough for a movie that embraces the world of imagination, feels the most grounded, the most of-this-world. Even when we enter Daniel’s imagination, it’s never at the cost of subverting reality.
Robbins and Schwarzenegger play off each other wonderfully, with the former being mostly timid and reserved, never really standing out from the crowd, while the latter is played with electrifyingly bombastic and maniacal glee. Think Patrick Bateman if he were more open to having some good, old fashioned fun. Sasha Lane’s character Cassie, the recipient of Luke’s adoration, is a quirky artist who has no problem letting her temper flare up until threats of smashing a beer bottle across a face are part of the night’s festivities. Clearly, Daniel’s a fan. Her performance also lights up the screen with equal amounts of intensity and empathy.
Director Mortimer plays with lighting, colors, and settings so as to ensure that Daniel’s presence is ever felt and ever-present. Luke is never really alone once he makes his unknowingly grave mistake, even if the beginnings of their adult relationship seem rooted in supportive friendship. But with each passing day, Daniel’s intentions become more and more clear, until a delightfully practical FX-heavy scene pulls back the curtain.
Speaking of which, the visuals in this movie are just wonderful. There are perfectly timed gruesome beats, monstrous visions, and disturbing locations. At no point are we meant to feel safe and secure in Mortimer’s New York City, making for a tense experience.
While the film is arresting, it sags a little under the weight of its own mythology. The nature of Daniel is unclear and, as a result, the methods of interacting with him are equally confusing. Throwing in nods to Heironymous Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, specifically a reimagined third panel, doesn’t help matters either, although it hints at a timelessness of whatever Daniel actually is. The closest comparison I can make, without hopefully giving too much away, is that I was strongly reminded of Pennywise from It and its true nature.
Additionally, the pacing is a bit inconsistent and the weakest points come at the times when Schwarzenegger, either physically or in spirit (you’ll understand what I mean when you see the film) is off-screen.
The soundtrack by Clark draws audiences in with Bernard Herrmann-esque stabs and shrieks. Cinematographer Lyle Vincent frames each scene to make the most out of the claustrophobic tension and oppressive and Hellish atmosphere. Production designer Kaet McAnneny does a wonderful job differentiating the worlds of imagination and reality. Lastly, costume designer Begonia Berges clearly had the time of her life with Schwazenegger’s outfits, which see the monstrous villain impeccably dressed to the nine.
The full journey of Daniel Isn’t Real is one well worth undertaking. There are some stumbles here and there but that doesn’t stop the film from being an intoxicating and thrilling time, complete with unsettling visuals and genuine scares.
Daniel Isn’t Real is a psychological thriller married with cosmic body horror in inventive, original, and exciting ways. If this is any indication of what’s to come, I’d say we can very much look forward to whatever Mortimer has coming next.