The Movie Waffler New to Shudder - DANIEL ISN’T REAL | The Movie Waffler

New to Shudder - DANIEL ISN’T REAL

daniel isn't real review
A young man's childhood imaginary friend returns with malevolent intentions.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Adam Egypt Mortimer

Starring: Patrick Schwarzenegger, Miles Robbins, Sasha Lane, Hannah Marks, Mary Stuart Masterson, Peter McRobbie

daniel isn't real poster

In New York City, a troubled man looks after his mentally ill mother, his only respite coming in the form of the young African-American woman he befriends, before he succumbs to the dark side of his volatile psyche and takes to the streets in a velvet suit, cigarette in hand.

Sounds familiar, doesn't it? Prior to making the runaway hit Joker, could writer/director Todd Phillips have read author Brian DeLeeuw's novel 'In This Way I was Saved', adapted here by director Adam Egypt Mortimer, with DeLeeuw as co-writer, as the supernatural psycho-thriller Daniel Isn't Real?

daniel isn't real review

Rather than blaming 'society', DeLeeuw and Mortimer find a more fitting way to represent mental illness through an imaginary friend who becomes the devil on the shoulder of their film's protagonist.

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As a young boy, Luke witnesses the graphic aftermath of a random shooting in his neighbourhood's diner. At the crime scene he is befriended by another boy, Daniel. Trouble is, nobody else can see Daniel, who seems to have been manifested by Luke as a means of processing the trauma of the horrors he witnessed. At the insistence of his mother, Claire (a welcome return for Mary Stuart Masterson), Luke banishes Daniel into a doll's house with a special ceremony.

daniel isn't real review

Years later, Luke (Miles Robbins) returns home from college for the summer to find his mother's mental state rapidly deteriorating. Stumbling across the old doll's house, he remembers how his imaginary friend helped him through stressful times as a child, and just for shits and giggles, he repeats the ceremony he once used to banish Daniel.

Wouldn't you know, the reverse happens this time around, with Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger, son of Arnie) once again materialising, this time as a hulking twenty-something.

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What follows is a horror riff on the old 'homme fatale' thriller concept, as Daniel assumes the role occupied by Brad Pitt's Tyler Durden in Fight Club and Rob Lowe's Alex in Bad Influence. Initially, Daniel exerts a positive impact on Luke's life, giving him a new confidence that Luke immediately puts to use wooing two young women - struggling artist Cassie (Sasha Lane) and sultry Louise Brooks wannabe Sophie (Hannah Marks). It soon becomes clear however that Daniel doesn't have wholesome intentions towards his human host, growing increasingly malevolent the more of Luke's conscious he takes over, proving dangerous to Luke and those around him.

daniel isn't real review

Aside from a climax that enters Clive Barker territory, Daniel Isn't Real plays its premise in grounded fashion. For much of its narrative you could be watching a thriller as straightforward as Bad Influence. Yet Mortimer and DeLeeuw leave you in no doubt that this is an allegory for mental illness, with Daniel a representation of a voice in Luke's head, compelling him to strike out against a world he feels cheated by.

As the troubled Luke, Robbins gifts the film with a sympathetic central presence, one that illustrates the film's thesis that the people (overwhelmingly male) who strike out violently with increasing regularity in the US are often themselves victims. But unlike Joker, Daniel Isn't Real doesn't pin the blame on those in the healthcare industry. Luke has a psychiatrist who goes out of his way to help his young patient, recognising the course he may be on. That Luke has people in his life willing to help him makes his plight all the more tragic, and all the more real. A lot of young men find it easier to talk to a gun salesman than a medical professional, and in the US, the former are all too willing to listen.

Daniel Isn't Real is on Shudder UK now.