‘Daniel Isn’t Real’ Brings Just Enough New Ideas to Play With

by Nick Spacek on December 5, 2019

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Minor Rock Fist Up]

Director Adam Egypt Mortimer‘s feature debut, Some Kind of Hate, was the kind of first movie which left you excited for what would come next. A fresh and interesting take on the supernatural slasher and revenge flick, the film Mortimer co-wrote with Brian DeLeeuw was ripe with characters who managed to subvert genre tropes, while also working well within the confines of that particular horror subgenre. In the four years since, fans such as myself have been eagerly awaiting Mortimer’s follow-up, and now we have it. Out this Friday, December 6, from Samuel Goldwyn Films and Shudder is Daniel Isn’t Real, starring Miles Robbins and Patrick Schwarzenegger.

“Troubled college freshman Luke (Robbins) suffers a violent family trauma and resurrects his childhood imaginary friend Daniel (Schwarzenegger) to help him cope. Charismatic and full of manic energy, Daniel helps Luke to achieve his dreams, before pushing him to the very edge of sanity and into a desperate struggle for control of his mind – and his soul.”

I’ve been very excited to see Daniel Isn’t Real since it premiered earlier this year at South By Southwest, and then as it made its festival circuit at places like Brooklyn Horror. The trailer gave nothing away, being less a “this is what you’re getting” and more like a wordless series of mad dreams from the mind of a deranged killer. It certainly worked, and so getting to watch this movie, I went in trying to tamp down my expectations, so as to not overcommit before the first frame had rolled.

Expectations thus tempered by impending deadlines and a desire to evaluate the film with clear eyes and an honest heart, I went into watching Daniel Isn’t Real, and came out on the other side impressed, if not struck dumb with amazement. Thankfully, I also wasn’t dumbstruck with disappointment, either, so let’s start there.

Mortimer’s film – which he once again co-wrote with DeLeeuw – will ring instantly familiar to anyone who’s watched films over the last couple of decades. If nothing else, the film’s look hearkens back to two specific turn of the century films which have become touchstones for a particular kind of film fan: 1999’s Fight Club and 2000’s American Psycho. Not for nothing were both of those films based on novels, as is Daniel Isn’t Real based on DeLeeuw’s own In This Way I Was Saved.

Honestly, it’s nigh-impossible to have any film with an imaginary friend and not have it compared to Fight Club. Maybe Harvey. At least kids’ movies get a break and get tied back to Drop Dead Fred. But, yes – Daniel is very much Tyler Durden in the way Tyler himself sums it up: “I look like you wanna look, I fuck like you wanna fuck, I am smart, capable, and most importantly, I’m free in all the ways that you are not.”

Granted, Luke recognizes that Daniel isn’t real very early on when his imaginary friend returns, and figures that it’s just that he’s like his mother, Claire (Mary Stuart Masterson) and he’s developing schizophrenia and bipolar issues. I love movies where you’re never quite certain as to whether or not the antagonist is a figment of the protagonist’s fractured psyche, as in The Babadook or Sinister, but always feel incredibly disappointed when the reveal is made as to a supernatural origin.

Reveals of that nature never quite land as well as the filmmakers intend, with the end result being that the viewer ends up feeling cheated by a sort of deus ex machina. To me, it’s the horror equivalent of “It was all a dream!”, as if the creators aren’t confident enough in their viewers to leave things up in the air at film’s end.

Daniel Isn’t Real walks a really fine line, and it’s only thanks to some really solid world-building in the film’s early moments that the ending doesn’t fall apart. The in-between parts aren’t especially as good as they could be, due to the fact that the women in Mortimer’s film are woefully undeveloped. Only Luke’s mother, Claire, really gets much of a backstory and character arc, and the pair of love interests, Cassie (Sasha Lane) and Sophie (Hannah Marks), are basically there as manic pixie dream girls, with Marks’ Sophie barely being fleshed out at all. Lane as Cassie is pretty good in what little she has to work with, but it’s not much.

Also, and this is just maybe the result of too much genre watching on my part, but Miles Robbins as Luke looks exactly like Cole Sprouse as Jughead Jones in the CW’s Riverdale series. His line delivery, specifically, is really so near as to be gimmick infringement. It was almost distracting at times, and while it doesn’t detract from the film as a whole, once noticed, it’s impossible to ignore.

The same goes for  Patrick Schwarzenegger as the titular Daniel, who is 100% channeling Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. Maybe it’s just the costuming and hairstyles for both actors’ characters, but it certainly makes any aloof weirdness (Robbins) or suave smarminess (Schwarzenegger) in the line delivery really hearken back to Jones and Bateman, respectively. The interactions between Luke and Daniel are what really anchor this film and keep its head above water, however, and the actors’ commitment to their roles keep everything from descending into parody.

Despite being fairly derivative, Daniel Isn’t Real doesn’t fail to entertain. The twists on the source material make it more homage than anything else, and lord knows there’s enough bad genre referencing out there that anything which rises above competent comes across as a rousing success. While not the great leap forward one might’ve hoped for after Some Kind of Hate, Adam Egypt Mortimer has made a quality sophomore outing which is worth catching.

Nick is a self-described “rock star journalist,” which is strange, considering he’s married with two kids and three cats. This is just further proof that you can’t trust anyone online. In addition to his work for Scene-Stealers, Nick can be found bitching about music elsewhere on the Internet at his blog, Rock Star Journalist, and the Pitch’s Wayward Blog.

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