Daniel Isn’t Real

Review by Rich Cline | 2.5/5

Daniel Isn't Real
dir Adam Egypt Mortimer
scr Brian DeLeeuw, Adam Egypt Mortimer
prd Daniel Noah, Josh C Waller, Lisa Whalen, Elijah Wood
with Miles Robbins, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Mary Stuart Masterson, Sasha Lane, Hannah Marks, Chukwudi Iwuji, Peter McRobbie, Andrew Bridges, Griffin Robert Faulkner, Nathan Chandler Reid, Chase Sui Wonders, Daniel Marconi
release US 6.Dec.19,
UK 7.Feb.20
19/US Voltage 1h36

masterson lane marks
fright fest

schwarzenegger and robbins
There's a fascinating idea lurking in this arthouse psycho-horror drama, which is directed with considerable style by Adam Egypt Mortimer. The film is dense and colourful, with some intriguing observations about mental illness bubbling along under the more overt freak-out thriller plot. And it's a bit of a shame that nothing really comes of that, as the film tips over into inventively rendered nastiness, but little more than that.
As a young boy, Luke (Faulkner) witnessed a murder and created imaginary friend Daniel (Reid) to cope. But when Daniel plots something dangerous, Luke's single mother Claire (Masterson) encourages him to lock Daniel in a dollhouse. Years later, Luke (now Robbins) is in therapy with Dr Braun (Iwuji), who encourages him to use his imagination to cope with reality. So Luke re-awakens Daniel (now Schwarzenegger), discovering a newfound confidence with artist Cassie (Lane). But Daniel is more interested in Sophie (Marks), and as he exerts more control over Luke things begin to get crazy.
The film is a swirl of images, edited to suggest all kinds of possibilities, the primary one being that Daniel isn't imaginary at all. But is he a ghost, a demon, an alien creature? Whatever, he's intent on causing as much pain as possible. And since only Luke can see him, Mortimer has fun playing with point of view from scene to scene, happily wrong-footing the audience while adding glimpses of bizarre grisliness and some shocking events that might be real.

One thing missing is a proper personality for Daniel, which means Schwarzenegger never quite finds him. It's a broad performance, mixing bravado, fake laughter and sinister sneers. And yet Daniel stubbornly refuses to emerge as a character. Robbins offers more textures as Luke, eliciting sympathy in some of the more harrowing sequences. And Lane has terrific presence as the likeable Cassie, who isn't willing to just put up with Luke's seemingly insane behaviour.

More interesting, Iwuji's character tries to help Luke cope with his demons by performing a new-age Tibetan exorcism that unsurprisingly spirals out of control. This opens the door for the film to take a meaningful look at Luke's mental instability, especially his fear that he has inherited his mother's delusions. But Mortimer abandons this for more straightforward horror violence, which is so obvious that it's never scary. Even so, the blend of digital and practical effects looks amazing.

cert 15 themes, language, violence, sexuality 19.Nov.19

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© 2019 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall