Nerds and Beyond Fest Review: “Daniel Isn’t Real” is a Trippy Thriller About the Power of Choice
Next up in my Beyond Fest coverage is Daniel Isn’t Real!
Daniel Isn’t Real is a new horror/thriller directed by Adam Egypt Mortimer and written by Mortimer and Brian DeLeeuw. It is based off of DeLeeuw’s novel In This Way I Was Saved. It stars Miles Robbins as Luke and Patrick Schwarzenegger as the titular Daniel. 80s icon Mary Stuart Masterson plays Luke’s mother Claire.
Daniel Isn’t Real starts off as many films do in this the year of our lord 2019: with a mass shooting. A young man walks into a coffee shop and shoots everyone inside before turning the gun on himself. Five year old Luke, having wandered outside while his parents were fighting about his mother’s mental illness, is an unfortunate witness of the aftermath. While he is staring at the body of a young waitress, another child, Daniel appears beside him and they become friends. Daniel follows Luke home and we discover that Daniel is only visible and audible to Luke. He is, as the title states, “not real,” but assumed to be Luke’s harmless imaginary friend. That is, until he tricks Luke into almost killing his mother. At the guidance of his mom, Luke is able to mentally lock Daniel away (using the visual of his grandmother’s doll house) and grows up into a mostly normal young adult.
We flash forward to Luke as a freshman in college, who comes home to find that his mother is off her meds (she’s a paranoid schizophrenic) and is attempting to kill herself. Feeling helpless and ill equipped to stop her, he unleashes Daniel. Daniel helps him stop his mother from killing herself (in the most dramatic fashion possible) and soon they pick up as if they have never left off. Grown up Daniel is confidant, flashy, and flamboyant. (Daniel is essentially a perfect blend of Tyler Durden and Patrick Bateman.) He helps Luke talk to, and sleep with, girls, and helps Luke play terrifying pranks on his poor roommate. However, Daniel starts to encourage (or really, demand) more violent, anti-social behavior from Luke, and that, coupled with an increasing number of blackouts, has Luke convinced that he might be schizophrenic like his mother. And so he begins seeing a therapist.
Things take a surprising turn though, when Luke does some digging and discovers that Daniel, spoiler alert, might actually be real. He learns that the young man who shot up that cafe all those years ago, also had an imaginary friend named Daniel, and that their games and pictures were almost identical. Daniel, in fact, is some sort of demon possessing him. Meanwhile, Daniel has grown more and more jealous of Luke’s ability to interact with the physical world, and when Luke tries to lock Daniel back in his mind prison, Daniel turns the tables and locks Luke up instead. Luke must then find his way out of the mental prison and stop Daniel, whatever the cost, before he can go on another murderous rampage.
Robbins is great as Luke. He feels like if Timothee Chalamet had a dorky brother. Mary Stuart Masterson brings a subtle, poignant sweetness to Claire. Sasha Lane and Hannah Marks play Luke’s primary and secondary love interests. Lane gives off a wonderful energy that reminded me of a young Gabby Hoffman in her portrayal of the quirky, frustrated artist Cassie. And Marks is truly hilarious as Sophie, the pretentious film major. But the breakout star is definitely Schwarzenegger as the demonic Daniel. He oozes sleazy charm, and his confidence is punctuated with a long simmering menace. You can’t tear your eyes away from him when he’s on screen. And that is not just because he wears a fishnet shirt for several scenes. (The nipples are the eyes of the chest after all.) He straddles the line between the chaotic, flamboyant energy of Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden and the strict, tightly wound control of Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman. And you can tell that he is having a blast while he’s doing it. Move over Joker and Harley, there’s a new problematic couple for angsty teen girls to pine over and write fics about! Luke and Daniel!
Thematically, Daniel Isn’t Real is an interesting approach to this sort of genre thriller. It also ties into a larger theme running through most of this year’s selections at Beyond Fest – namely, the problems with our parents. Whether it’s daddy issues in Color Out of Space, (or the next film on my review list: Come to Daddy) or the mommy issues in Daniel Isn’t Real, a lot of the films are interested in exploring the inherited violence, trauma, or mental health problems of our parents and the different ways they can manifest. In the case of Daniel Isn’t Real, Luke has to contend with not only his mother’s worsening mental health, but also his own, and the ways in which they might be connected. And while it might be true that in some ways we can’t escape becoming our parents, I appreciate that Daniel Isn’t Real takes a slightly different approach. Yes, Luke’s mom has schizophrenia. Yes, Luke sees and hears someone who isn’t there. And yes, Luke suffers from depression and anxiety. But when Luke discovers that Daniel is a demon and not a symptom of schizophrenia, he doesn’t assume that his mental health problems are solved. He acknowledges that he still has mental health issues that are separate from his possession. And I think that’s a really important, clever, distinction. The film does not equate mental illness with possession, which is an easy stereotype that is leaned on a little too heavily in a lot of films (in my humble opinion).
The film also explores ideas around rebirth, reincarnation, and the cyclical nature of life, that I think intersects in an interesting way with what it has to say about the ways that we inherit our parents’ problems. If we are destined to become our parents, then isn’t that just another form of reincarnation? Of continuing the cycle? Except that Luke makes different choices from his mother. He chooses to go to therapy. He chooses to fight Daniel. He chooses to do the work, essentially. And even when he fails and is locked in the mind prison/hell dimension (which, if the first two thirds of the movie are “Fight Club meets American Psycho,” then the last third is pure Hellraiser), he continues to fight his way forward, until he is faced with only one choice. To stay locked away or to take the physical, and metaphorical, leap off the edge – and back into the real world.
Overall, Daniel Isn’t Real is a great little thriller with a lot of fun twists and turns. Robbins and Schwarzenegger have great chemistry as friends and as foes. And when the movie takes a turn towards the demonic, there are a lot of great practical effects, and the mask work in particular is a very cool interpretation of the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch (whose work is explicitly referenced within the plot of the film). If you’re in the mood for a psychological thriller with a splash of horror, then you should definitely check out Daniel Isn’t Real when it’s released on December 6th.
Stay tuned for more reviews coming out of Beyond Fest 2019!