J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, December 06, 2019

Daniel Isn’t Real—Or Is He?


Luke’s imaginary friend certainly isn’t a six-foot-tall invisible rabbit. He is slick, reckless, hedonistic, and sinister. He is everything Luke isn’t, except he maybe isn’t completely imaginary. At first, he gives Luke confidence, but then he drags the college freshman to some very dark places in Adam Egypt Mortimer’s Daniel Isn’t Real, which opens today in New York.

Daniel first appears in Luke’s young life at a moment when he was dealing with considerable trauma and angst. Initially, the “imaginary” friend provides some fun and distraction, but then he tricks the confused child into nearly poisoning his mother, Claire. When she recovers, she forces Luke to lock Daniel away in a dusty antique doll house. She assumes it is a bit of psychological role-playing, but it really works. Years later, Luke deliberately releases him, because of a vague notion Daniel could stimulate his artistic creativity. In retrospect, that was a really bad impulse decision.

For a while, Daniel helps Luke talk to girls in various social settings, but soon he is pushing Luke towards meaner, more aggressive behavior. Belatedly, Luke realizes Daniel’s influence makes him a danger to others—and himself. But wait, there’s more, which we won’t give away.

Happily, Mortimer does not overplay the “is-he-really-just-going-crazy” card, because a lot of horror fans are probably getting tired of that non-twisty twist. However, there is still some pretty cool imagery of Luke’s troubled subconscious manifested on-screen. It is not Hitchcock’s Spellbound, but it is impressive.


Most importantly, Daniel, played with shark-like cunning and serpent-like charm by Patrick Schwarzenegger, is a terrific villain. He is sort of like a horndog frat brother from Hell. In contrast, Miles Robbins is scrupulously awkward and introverted as Luke, just as the narrative demands. Mary Stuart Masterson is both alarming and distressing as the deeply disturbed Claire. Also, take note of Chukwudi Iwuji, who gets in some entertaining movie head-shrinking as Braun, the college shrink and authority on sacred Tibetan artifacts.

This is a very creepy movie. Screenwriter Brian DeLeeuw, adapting his own novel, serves up some legit surprises that Mortimer skillfully springs on the audience. In Isn’t Real, you can see the same gritty vibe and sense of youthful alienation that distinguished Mortimer’s previous feature, Some Kind of Hate. Yet, the décor and trappings are rendered with such detailed care, it could almost pass for the evil twin of a Wes Anderson movie. Highly recommended, Daniel Isn’t Real opens today (12/6) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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