It's hard to believe but there was once a time when imaginary friends weren't the exclusive property of well-spoken children who live in old, creepy mansions. Like crapping your dacks, talking to yourself is one of those things that is acceptable (almost cutesy, even) when you're a little kid, but significantly less so when you're an adult. Likewise, there's only so many times you can blame a broken vase on "you know who" before your parents cart you off to the child psychologist. In short, "funny haha" can quickly become "funny strange" - which is presumably why horror is so reluctant to let it go.
At the beginning of Adam Egypt Mortimer's 'Daniel Isn't Real', a young man walks into a coffee shop and goes on a shotgun rampage before being killed by police. Meanwhile, five-year-old Luke, having wandered outside while his parents were fighting about his mother's mental illness, witnesses the aftermath. Another child, Daniel, appears beside him and they become best friends. Daniel is imaginary and seemingly content to go on adventures and have sword fights with brooms... until he tricks Luke into tampering with his mother's medication. Luke is forced to mentally lock Daniel away in his grandmother's creepy dollhouse.
Flash forward to a grown-up Luke (Miles Robbins, 'Halloween', 'The Day Shall Come'), who is a freshman in college and struggling to take care of his paranoid schizophrenic mother, Claire (Mary Stuart Masterson, 'Skin'). At his lowest ebb, he releases Daniel (now an adult played by Patrick Schwarzenegger) from the dollhouse. They quickly pick up as if they had never left off. Daniel looks a lot like Scott Disick from 'Keeping Up with the Kardashians' - with slicked-down hair and a tight smile, he's a flashy and flamboyant riff on Patrick Bateman. He starts to teach Luke how to create art, take more control over his life, play pranks on his college roommate and pick up chicks, including a quirky, frustrated painter named Cassie (Sasha Lane, 'Hellboy', 'American Honey') and a film major, Sophie (Hannah Marks). "William Blake's poetry was just dictation from an archangel," Daniel quips.
Robbins is likeable as the awkward Luke, but the highlight is definitely Schwarzenegger as the demonic Daniel, alternately charming and menacing. For a while, it's enjoyable just to watch the two young men stick two fingers up to society's precious rules and conventions. In Freudian terms, Luke is the Ego while Daniel is the Id. In some ways, 'Daniel Isn't Real' is also a little bit of a commentary on millennials, with Daniel playing the toxically masculine yuppie bro and Michael as the sensitive New Age youngster. It helps that Robbins and Schwarzenegger have great chemistry, allowing the menacing and the absurd to coexist in a funny, very matter-of-fact way. "Is that why you're here? To give me bleak little pep talks?" Luke wonders aloud.
However, what starts as small bits of motivational banter turns into something way more serious when Daniel starts to encourage violent, antisocial behaviour from Luke. Coupled with an increasing number of blackouts, Luke begins to suspect he might have inherited his mother's mental illness...
Over the course of an hour and 40 minutes, we come to understand and sympathise with Luke who, deep down, isn't a bad dude. He's just grappling with an unusual disorder. Luke's mom has schizophrenia. Luke sees and hears someone who isn't there. Luke suffers from depression and anxiety. But he also chooses to go to therapy. He chooses to fight Daniel. Therein lies the battle.
Luke's mom has schizophrenia. Luke sees and hears someone who isn't there. Luke suffers from depression and anxiety. But he also chooses to go to therapy. He chooses to fight Daniel. Therein lies the battle.
Oftentimes, the most interesting characters in films are the ones who are split on a dilemma. The internal struggle can be fun to watch because you can never be quite sure which side will win out. But what happens when that internal struggle becomes external and one character becomes two within the same body? Now that's a character that's truly struggling.
'Daniel Isn't Real' (based off of Brian DeLeeuw's novel 'In This Way I Was Saved') shares a lot of similarities with David Fincher's 'Fight Club', which followed a powerless office worker who happens to meet an assertive friend who helps him become more confident only for everything to get out of hand. I also kept thinking of Curtis Hanson's underrated 'Bad Influence' with James Spader and Rob Lowe, Robert Mulligan's 'The Other', Gregory Hoblit's 'Fallen', and Brad Anderson's 'Session 9'.
Adam Egypt Mortimer's isn't purely about psychological thrills, though. There's a strong dash of Cronenbergian body horror (with equally strong practical special effects), which eventually mutates into Lovecraftian terror and the type of monsterish stuff Clive Barker usually excels in (particularly 'Nightbreed' and 'Hellraiser'). It's impossible to elaborate too much on any one of these aspects without giving away some huge plot twists.
'Daniel Isn't Real' is a slickly directed, spooky and surprisingly empathetic film about the monsters that dwell in the human mind.