Daniel Isn't Real review Miles Robbins Patrick Schwarzenegger

Year: 2019
Director(s): Adam Egypt Mortimer
Writer(s): Brian DeLeeuw
Region of Origin: USA
Rating: n/a
Color, 96 mins

Synopsis: A troubled college freshman resurrects his childhood imaginary friend Daniel to cope with trauma. (Source)

Mental illness, trauma and symbolism about inner duality aren’t anything new to horror, but Daniel Isn’t Real’s treatment of each feels uncommonly clever and humane. For his latest, director Adam Egypt Mortimer (joining forces with writer Brian DeLeeuw) has crafted an urgent, devastating audio/visual assault. This is a nightmare that fully immerses us into its grip, capturing a cascading madness that weighs heavier the deeper we get. Utilizing performances from Miles Robbins, Patrick Schwarzenegger and Sasha Lane, Mortimer’s latest is a surreal patchwork of anguish and psychological heft. 

As a child, Luke literally runs away in the middle of a parental blow up. Coming upon a fresh crime scene, he witnesses a grisly sight that sticks with him. It’s also where he meets, Daniel. The pair quickly become inseparable. But Luke is the only one who can see him. After Daniel tricks Luke into nearly poisoning his mother, Claire (Mary Stuart Masterson), she forces him to finally confront this spectre and realize that he isn’t real. Luke tearfully locks him away into his grandmother’s old dollhouse – and like that, Daniel is gone. Flash forward a decade later, Luke (Miles Robbins) has moved out and is in college, but troubled by leaving his mother alone. Now it’s her struggling with a bout of schizophrenia. During a moment of weakness, Luke unwittingly frees Daniel from his cage. Fully grown and with pent-up aggression of his own, Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger) has plans for Luke, and he won’t stop until he gets what he wants. 

You can probably already tell, this film wears its metaphors on its sleeve. Still, what it says and does with the angsty, volatile symbolism is truly fascinating and gripping. The ideas here never feel forced or heavy handed, but rather affecting and tactile. Without giving away too much, Mortimer carefully and patiently submerges us into Luke’s mindset and relationship with Daniel. For most of the film, the two of them enact a tenuous relationship that could blow up at any moment. It’s this deftly held tension that hangs over every scene, complimenting some vividly stylish photography and the self destructive nature of its characters. But just when we think we’ve got things figured out, the film takes an unpredictable turn. This new development takes things further, never betraying what’s been set up, but pushing the film into a more existential, Jacob’s Ladder-esque terror. 

Daniel Isn't Real review Patrick Schwarzenegger

Second only to Mortimer’s tight direction, are performances that give the film its heart and soul. Miles Robbins’ Luke is a force to reckon with. Constantly torn between opposing instincts, he’s the reason why the film hits so hard. There’s an innocence to him that feels completely detached from the implications that surround him, and he sells the story’s conceit with raw realism. Opposite, Patrick Schwarzenegger turns in his best Patrick Bateman. This is a performance that is so dark and unflinching, and yet Schwarzenegger feels oddly charming when he isn’t scaring us to death. The push and pull between Robbins and Schwarzenegger is the film’s soul, and together, the pair are killer. On the side, Mary Stuart Masterson, Sasha Lane, Chukwudi Iwuji round things out, further selling the story’s textural desperation. 

Daniel Isn’t Real succeeds in the way it examines real-life traumas and illness alongside emotionally honest fantasy. The film’s sincerity keeps it from feeling exploitive, and Mortimer’s eye and neon-hued visuals balance arthouse sensibility with otherworldly horror. With a film handled as richly as this, I really can’t wait to see what Mortimer does next. This is a genre-crossing experience from one of horror’s most promising voices.