'Daniel Isn't Real': Film Review

Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films
Disturbing psychological horror, at least for most of its running time.
12/6/2019

Miles Robbins and Patrick Schwarzenegger play a troubled young man and his possibly imaginary friend in Adam Egypt Mortimer's horror thriller.

Having an imaginary friend can be very comforting for a child. As an adult, not so much. That's one of the lessons imparted in the new psychological horror film directed by Adam Egypt Mortimer (Some Kind of Hate). Although it eventually settles into familiar genre tropes, for much of its running time Daniel Isn't Real proves a genuinely provocative shocker.

We're first introduced to the central character, Luke (Griffin Robert Faulkner), as an 8-year-old boy. In a memorable opening sequence, he's shown happening upon the aftermath of a mass shooting at a coffee shop, with the bullet-ridden body of the perpetrator lying in the street. It's there that he meets Daniel (Nathan Chandler Reid), who immediately becomes his best friend.

The boys prove inseparable, although a couple of problems arise. One is that no one else can see or hear Daniel, including Luke's emotionally troubled mother, Claire (Mary Stuart Masterson, delivering an unsettlingly intense turn but sadly underutilized). The other is that Daniel soon turns out to be trouble, fueling Luke's darker side to such an extent that, after one particularly troubling event, Claire forces her son to lock his "friend" inside a vintage dollhouse in the attic.

Cut to years later, when the now grown Luke (Miles Robbins, Blockers) is attending college, even as his mother's schizophrenia has become more pronounced. When she has a breakdown, the distraught Luke once again turns to his childhood friend, freeing him from his confinement. Like Luke, Daniel is now a fully grown man (a strapping Patrick Schwarzenegger, conveying a playful intensity similar to his father, Arnold), who eagerly reassumes the role of Luke's id.

Fueled by Daniel's encouragement, a newly confident and assertive Luke soon finds himself doing better at school; in one memorable scene, Daniel helps Luke during an exam by stripping off his clothes to reveal the answers written on his well-muscled body (it's one of many opportunities the film takes to have Schwarzenegger appear shirtless). The previously socially maladroit Luke even manages to attract the romantic interest of not one but two women: bohemian aspiring artist Cassie (Sasha Lane, American Honey) and psychology student Sophie (Hannah Marks).

The film is most effective when keeping the viewer off-balance as to whether the title character is merely a figment of Luke's possible metal illness or an actual malevolent force of the demonic variety who seeks more and more control of Luke's behavior. Director Mortimer (working from a script he co-wrote with Brian DeLeeuw, author of In This Way I was Saved, the more ambiguously titled 2009 novel on which the film is based), keeps us guessing as to the answer; for a while, at least. Then the film become more baroque, with the CGI special effects and horrific creature designs kicking in to launch the proceedings into body horror terrain. What started out intriguingly devolves into predictable narrative machinations, made palatable mainly by Robbins' impressive performance as the troubled Luke and Lane's earthily sexy turn as the love interest who figures prominently in the film's violent climax.

Ultimately, Daniel Isn't Real doesn't fully succeed in overcoming its overly familiar elements (you keep waiting for the two lead characters to join a fight club). But it does have enough genuinely creepy moments to provide new meaning to the old phrase, "You're never truly alone with a schizophrenic."

Production: Ace Pictures, Spectrevision
Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films
Cast: Miles Robbins, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Sasha Lane, Mary Stuart Masterson, Hannah Marks, Chukwudi Iwuji, Griffin Robert Faulkner, Nathan Reid, Chase Sui Wonder, Andrew Bridges, Peter McRobbie, Percy Thigpen

Director: Adam Egypt Mortimer
Screenwriters: Brian DeLeeuw, Adam Egypt Mortimer

Producers: Daniel Noah, Josh C. Waller, Lisa Whalen, Elijah Wood
Executive producers: Annie Chang, Johnny Chang, Calving Choong, Peter Wong, Timur Bekbosunov, Emma, Stacy Jorgensen, Elisa Lleras, Michael M. McGuire

Director of photography: Lyle Vincent
Production designer: Kaet McAnneny

Editor: Brett W. Bachman
Composer: Clark

Costume designer: Begona Berges
Casting: Danielle Aufiero, Amber Horn

100 minutes