"The more you tell someone not to do something, the more they just go ahead and do it".
With his parents squabbling in the living room and on the verge of breaking up, young lad Luke (Griffin Robert Faulkner) grabs his favourite teddy bear Wilbur and sneaks off outside for a stroll down the street. He happens upon the aftermath of a senseless cafe shooting and is transfixed by the dead expression on one female victim's face, until a friendly voice beside him asks if he wants to go and play. The voice belongs to taller, older boy Daniel (Nathan Chandler Reid).
Daniel takes Luke to a nearby play area where they're having fun until Luke's frantic mother Claire (Mary Stuart Masterson) catches up with him and drags him back home. He asks if he can bring Daniel home to play some more. Claire quickly catches on to the fact that Luke has acquired himself an imaginary friend and plays along, inviting Daniel back.
Daniel's existence seems innocuous for some time until one day when Luke plays a prank on Claire which backfires badly. Luke blames Daniel, and consequently Claire instructs him to lock Daniel away in Grandma's old dollhouse. Daniel resists initially but Luke barks repeatedly at him until he does as he's told, and away he's consigned.
Fast-forward several years and Luke is now a young man (Miles Robbins) who's recently left home to make it on his own in college as, among other things, a budding photographer. And yet, he worries about Claire due to her long history of mental illness. He's not convinced that she's coping very well without him. Returning to the family home and witnessing his mother acting erratically (smashing mirrors because she can't bear to see her own visage, that kind of thing) stirs up stress in Luke, so much so that he suffers creepy hallucinations at a disco.
When he visits psychiatrist Braun (Chukwudi Iwuji) to discuss his anxieties, Luke reveals that he worries most about "sex and death". Braun says this is pretty normal, but asks if Luke's imagination has ever played tricks on him before. Of course, this is where Daniel comes into conversation. Rather unwisely, Braun suggests "maybe you should try and connect with that part of yourself again" ...
During one violent episode where Luke has to restrain Claire from killing herself, the adult Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger) suddenly reappears. Luke has his best friend back in his life and, unsurprisingly, Daniel is soon passing on the most terrible advice imaginable to his insecure pal.
Luke doesn't notice at first: he's happy to have Daniel back beside him, even if he's more aware as an adult that he needs to keep his interactions with his imaginary friend discreet. And he doesn't see any harm in the advice he's being given to begin with - after all, Daniel's tips on chatting up the girls instil our protagonist with renewed confidence and appear to work a treat.
In the meantime, however, Claire is committed into a home to keep an eye on her mental health issues. Luke stays at the family home which he finds oppressive. However, a ray of light shines when he begins to form a deeper relationship with a pretty fledgling painter called Cassie (Sasha Lane). Daniel's happy to stand smiling in the corner offering Luke patter to repeat in order to further woo Cassie in the early days. But, as Luke and Cassie's bond grows stronger and they favour more time together, it seems even imaginary friends can become jealous.
Daniel starts to manipulate events in order to jeopardise Luke's friendship with Cassie. This is the point that Luke realises he needs to rid himself of Daniel again. It's also the point where he realises he may be developing the same mental issues that his mother has lived with for decades; ironically, coinciding with this revelatory moment of clarity, Luke's mind has never been more fractured and his grip on reality so tenuous.
Braun steps in with some rather unorthodox therapy techniques hoping to purge Luke of his ties to Daniel. And that's where things start getting really weird ...
Director Adam Egypt Mortimer co-wrote the film's screenplay with Brian De Leeuw. The film is an adaptation of the latter's 2009 novel "In This Way I Was Saved".
While the theme is most definitely one of mental illness during the film's first hour - a well-trod path in horror cinema - it's worth noting Mortimer and De Leeuw fall short of satisfactorily exploring the many possibilities their tale of Luke's decline and deep-rooted, possibly inherited issues provide. While Robbins delivers a solid, persuasive performance of a confused young man that we find fundamentally likeable, the script lets him down by never going deep enough into detailing the parallels between he and his mother's mental health concerns, or the impact key incidents from his childhood - such as the cafe shooting, which rears its head once more during the final act in a twist that changes our understanding of everything - had on him. We learn nothing about Luke or his crumbling psyche; we merely witness it helplessly as it declines.
But, given the turn of events that inform the film's increasingly surreal latter 30 minutes, perhaps that's the filmmakers' point. It's no accident that Mortimer cites THE EXORCIST among his influences.
Elsewhere, other cinematic influences are clear. The weird, ethereal artiness and "descent into Hell" odyssey of JACOB'S LADDER is evident (nice casting in this respect too - Robbins is the son of Tim Robbins [star of LADDER] and Susan Sarandon); the visceral, fetishist creatures of HELLRAISER; the "imaginary friend" tropes of FIGHT CLUB and DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE (and the countless others) ... there's a compelling argument to suggest DANIEL ISN'T REAL is a tapestry made up of other's ideas - including several embraced stylistic nods to the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch.
It also comes as no surprise that this film comes with the selling point "from the producers of MANDY": there's most definitely an air of that film's retro-style psychedelic madness come the escalating visual flourishes of the finale.
So, does DANIEL ISN'T REAL retain an identity of its own? Kind of, but perhaps not enough to merit the attention it's received from sources as disparate as a 5-star glowing review in Little White Lies magazine and an article in The Guardian citing it as a notable cinematic examination of mental health issues. It's about as notable in that regard as DROP DEAD FRED (and, for those who are quick to tell me FRED wasn't imaginary, well ... watch this before commenting!).
Stylistically, the film is a triumph. A low-key score weaves itself well into the increasingly dream-like atmosphere, while the mounting nightmarish visuals are all filmed with colourful finesse. The largely practical special effects are supervised by George Loucas and Benjamin Mullin; they do a great job of manifesting some surreal imagery onto the screen, some of which is very reminiscent in concept of the work Rick Baker provided for VIDEODROME.
Another commercial draw for the film is that Daniel is portrayed by Arnold Schwarzenegger's son Patrick. I won't lie, I found his physical likeness to a younger, slimmer version of his father a little distracting at first. But he acquits himself just fine in a role that admittedly doesn't require much of him, other than to act quite leery. Masterson lends events an air of much-needed tragedy, though again this sub-plot doesn't adequately tie-in at any point; Lane is the film's emotional core and, for me, takes home the award for most impactful performance.
DANIEL ISN'T REAL is stylish, hallucinatory and visually inventive. It has energy, and its young cast are generally very good. It doesn't speak out about mental health concerns as some critics have claimed, it merely uses these as a springboard. It's a solid way of passing time, but I feel like Mortimer will grow as a filmmaker and deliver something special in time. DANIEL is good, but this isn't his masterpiece.
Arrow Video is treating DANIEL ISN'T REAL to a limited theatrical run in the UK, which more or less coincides with their release of it onto special edition blu-ray. We were sent an online screener link for review purposes.
The 2.35:1 picture is very good indeed - colourful, clean and sharp. Running at 100 minutes and 4 seconds long, the film is uncut. English 2.0 audio was satisfyingly clear at all times too.
Although unavailable for review purposes, the blu-ray is set to offer a plethora of extra material. This will include a director's audio commentary track; a video essay on the film's themes by author and critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas; deleted scenes; an alternate ending; an interview with the director; Fright Fest Q&A footage; the film's theatrical trailer; and stills galleries. The first pressing also comes with a limited-edition collectors' booklet.
DANIEL ISN'T REAL is an interesting, occasionally invigorating film. Despite its flaws it shows a lot of promise, and still comes with a recommendation.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Arrow Video|