A trippy psychological thriller that keeps its ambitions in check despite having big, bold ideas behind it.
Daniel Isn’t Real, the second feature film from director/co-writer Adam Egypt Mortimer, is a trippy psychological thriller that keeps its ambitions in check despite having big, bold ideas behind it. The result is a messy but often mesmerizing trip through a young man’s fractured psyche. Miles Robbins, the son of Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, plays Luke, an artistic but troubled young man who witnessed a horrible shooting as a boy. After the shooting, Luke (whose younger self is played by Griffin Robert Faulkner) met Daniel (Nathan Chandler Reid), an imaginary friend who goaded him into increasingly dangerous activities. Daniel’s mother, Claire (Mary Stuart Masterson), made him lock Daniel away in a dollhouse. But in the present, Daniel (played as an adult by Patrick Schwarzenegger, son of Maria Shriver and Arnold Schwarzenegger) returns and begins to help Luke with everything from dealing with the now-crazy Claire to picking up girls at parties.
Though this set-up could easily lead a thoughtful, low-budget psychological thriller, Daniel Isn’t Real is produced by produced by SpectreVision, the production company responsible for the excellent A Girl Walks Home at Night and two wild, recent Nicolas Cage flicks, Mandy and Color Out of Space. Daniel shares DNA with these other SpectreVision titles in that weird, violent and beautiful imagery is a priority. In fact, the plot, which is based on the novel In This Way I Was Saved by Brian DeLeeuw, (who co-wrote the script with Mortimer), increasingly takes a back burner to the film’s gorgeous visuals, evocative music and creative practical effects as Daniel Isn’t Real progresses.
In the early stages, Luke and Daniel strike an uneasy balance between camaraderie and danger, with the fine-featured Robbins and the slickly handsome Schwarzenegger playing well off of one another. When Luke meets Cassie (Sasha Lane), Daniel tells him just the things to say and do to win her over. There are definite homoerotic undertones to the proceedings, though the film would benefit from more of it, as the actual physical manifestations of Luke and Daniel’s connection end up providing Daniel‘s most interesting visuals. And it isn’t as if the film shies away from sex. Luke, with Daniel’s aid, manages to seduce both Cassie and the more free-spirited Sophie (Hannah Marks). The film certainly isn’t homophobic, but the potential for more potent horror is restricted by the heternormative approach to Luke and Daniel’s relationship.
In this age of ambiguous storytelling, Daniel‘s more concrete explanation for Daniel’s presence in Luke’s life is quite welcome. But the big reveal, which features a nifty nod to the Hieronymus Bosch painting “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” while intriguing, isn’t fully realized. In the film’s final moments, Mortimer and Deleeuw’s inspirations become more clear, with A Nightmare on Elm Street, Lovecraft, Labyrinth and even Hereditary clearly referenced.
Though Daniel Isn’t Real is clearly a low-budget affair, the visuals (from cinematographer Lyle Vincent, production designer Kaet McAnneny and particularly creature and make-up designer Martin Astles) and the music (by the composer Chris Clark) are extraordinary, turning Brooklyn into a terrifying kaleidoscope of madness. And Mortimer’s insistence on keeping us closely attached to Luke allows the film to make strong, interesting statements about mental illness, sex and masculinity. Though Schwarzenegger and Robbins are effective in the lead roles, it is the ladies who give the strongest performances, and it would have been nice to see more of them. Masterson is ageless but more importantly strikes an unnerving balance between tender and mentally ill. Marks is excellent in a limited role, but the real standout here is Lane, who creates an interesting and complicated character in just a few key scenes. Though her role is written rather formulaically, she is impossible to look away from.
More of these ladies would have helped Daniel Isn’t Real, as would more coherent storytelling. But the film’s strengths are satisfying and well-earned. Its particular accomplishment is how it holds its big ideas within rather restricted confines, never reaching for more than it can accomplish. It will be exciting to see what those involved can do with more resources.