Daniel Isn’t Real. Directed by Adam Egypt Mortimer. Screenplay by Mortimer & Brian DeLeeuw, based on the novel by DeLeeuw.
Starring Miles Robbins, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Sasha Lane, Mary Stuart Masterson, Hannah Marks, Chukwudi Iwuji, Peter McRobbie, Andrew Bridges, Griffin Robert Faulkner, Nathan Chandler Reid, Daniel Marconi, & Chase Sui Wonders.
SpectreVision / ACE Pictures Entertainment
Not Rated / 96 minutes
Horror / Thriller
DISCLAIMER: The following essay contains spoilers
Father Gore saw Adam Egypt Mortimer’s Some Kind of Hate several years ago when it was released and felt it was a unique, brutal horror take on bullying. It didn’t resort to cliche in order to hammer home its heavy themes / message. Mortimer showed deep interest in the supernatural, too, as well as the potential of using it for allegorical means. That’s where his next and latest feature, Daniel Isn’t Real, really kicks off.
Luke (Miles Robbins) is a college freshman, breaking out into the world after a troubled childhood. After his mother Claire (Mary Stuart Masterson) suffers a violent mental breakdown, he finds refuge in an old, familiar face: a childhood imaginary friend, Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger), also all grown up. The return of Daniel is marked by emotional disturbances that are a lot different than when Luke was a boy. Luke’s forced to confront the darker part of himself via Daniel, proving dangerously destructive.
The most obvious symbolic elements of Daniel Isn’t Real operate as an allegory of schizophrenia, or similar mental illnesses. Luke’s hereditary mental health issues are manifested in the corporeal havoc Daniel wreaks on his life. Mortimer plunges us down the rabbit hole of psychological struggle, depicting what happens when a mind becomes divided against itself and the lifelong trail of destruction this confrontation of identity can potentially leave in its wake.
Daniel works as an allegory for the process of schizophrenia, and the toll it takes on a person and those around them, like the disease is a physical presence in a person’s life only they can see. Daniel shows up when Luke is a little boy, at a time when Luke’s family life was crumbling, in no small part to his mother’s refusal to properly take care of herself mentally. His presence in Luke’s life is obvious early on, after the imaginary boy convinces the real boy to nearly kill his own mother. Luke, and Claire, each play a part in locking Daniel away— their metaphoric repression of mental illness as mother and son, a family burying a secret. All too often this is the case in real life, where people ignore and even fully repress their mental health issues, as can their families play a part in the denial. This backfires later in life, evident in the film when Claire has a violent psychological break. This incident triggers the reemergence of Luke’s own symptoms, allowing Daniel— a dormant, growing psychological condition— freedom to become a part of Luke’s life again, in a far more significant, sinister way.
A great sequence visualising the psychological space Daniel inhabits within Luke’s mind comes after the latter has locked his imaginary friend away in a little playhouse. Daniel’s sounds, beating on the walls inside Luke’s head fade as time passes. They become distant. Yet as this early sequence then moves onto Luke as a college student, the faint banging remains there, deep beneath his psyche.
There are compelling moments rooted in masculinity throughout Daniel Isn’t Real, which expand a discussion of the way patriarchal society represents psychological issues. The most significant occurs when Luke goes to see a therapist. One of the initial statements he makes is to tell the therapist he’s started to “faint like a Victorian duchess.” In the Victorian era, ‘the vapours‘ were a variety of conditions mainly ascribed to women, cramming all sorts of mental issues under a single umbrella that could be dismissed simply because they originated with women. Vapours usually included fainting spells. Luke’s statement is rooted in a couple centuries worth of gendered, sociopolitical language. And so Luke is afraid to fully admit his problems because then he’d be like his mother— mentally ill and also feminised in the eyes of patriarchal society because men are supposed to keep it together, whereas women are the ones prone to hysteria.
“You ever feel like you have no idea who you really are?”
Childhood reoccurs as a motif throughout Mortimer’s film. Daniel is an inkling, when Luke is young, that Luke is going to have serious problems later on. He’s forced into dormancy by youth. The sword fights the two would engage in later come back into play once Luke must either kill Daniel or be totally taken over. The way Luke is figuratively tossed into the dungeon of his own psyche while Daniel takes over emulates the childhood games they played, as if Daniel’s king of the castle and Luke is cast down into the dungeon in horrifying darkness.
Art is another reoccurring motif in the film. A worthy note in the screenplay is Daniel’s mention of William Blake. Blake claimed to have had a vision of the archangel Gabriel, who was the source of his artistic vision. Buried in there is the mythic idea that art comes from a supernatural place, at once inside the artist and also outside, and, because many assumed Blake was mad, it’s an idea that enforces a belief of the artist as often tortured— not unlike why people believe being an artist and addiction goes hand in hand.
But what happens when the archangel wants the credit for all it’s created?
An unsettling scene features Luke quoting from the Bible, with Daniel’s help, to impress Cassie (Sasha Lane). When Luke goes ‘off script’ it prompts a terrifying reaction from Daniel, who doesn’t like not having full control. In terms of Luke as an artist we can view Daniel as the nagging mental illness trying to convince him being medicated will dull his skills / artistic vision, encouraging all the darker aspects of his personality.
This is where we encounter concepts straight out of psychoanalytic theories by Carl Jung. One scene references the “hidden self,” and Sasha also refers to a “shadow” she represents in the painting of Luke, depicting the figurative presence in his psyche. The Jungian shadow encompasses the unknown side of a person’s personality, which the conscious ego can’t identify in itself. It can be good, if it’s embodied in an individual’s conscious life. It is undoubtedly bad and darker if one can’t consciously acknowledge its existence. This is why Luke’s struggle with Daniel goes to such dark, ugly lengths, because he struggles with accepting what’s truly happening to him, hoping to pass it off on something supernatural rather than face the fact Daniel is a part of him, not an imaginary friend but a genuine piece of his own identity— the shadowy, horrible side. At one point, Daniel and Luke physically merge in a body horror moment of transference, as their faces melt into one another, and Luke suddenly becomes monstrous.
The horror of Daniel is most wonderfully represented Mortimer’s use of imagery from the right panel in a Hieronymus Bosch triptych painting— The Garden of Earthly Delights, albeit slightly altered to be somehow more disturbing— to create the nightmarish images Luke experiences once Daniel takes over their shared psyche. Daniel becomes like the King of Hell from the painting, his head shaped in a hideous crown formation (Bosch depicted this as an anthropomorphic bird character; the film builds off its castle imagery by depicting the character with a horned crown bulging out of its skull). Mortimer’s sly inclusion of Bosch, and in particular a reference to this specific painting, references the artistry of Luke’s personality, and also the duality of a heaven and hell seesaw within Luke, like the various beautiful and dreadful images in Bosch’s triptych.
“You’ve gotta love yourself”
No doubt this is one of Father Gore’s favourites from 2019. The whole affair feels like a far less sexualised version of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, with all the disturbing visual material and dark humour expected of a romp with Krueger— likely why there have been calls online for Mortimer to be the one to eventually remake Wes Craven’s original 1984 film. Yet Mortimer’s film is all his own, more often than not a fresh use of horror to depict (some of) the struggles inherent in battling mental illness. Best of all, it never devolves into exploitative territory in terms of its allegory.
Daniel Isn’t Real is a confident, disturbing, and powerful film. There are strong performances from all involved. Tough not to single out Patrick Schwarzenegger, whose charisma and subtle yet strong presence adds disarming charm to Daniel, making the terrible psychological ride Luke experiences all the more interesting. Mortimer’s directing has gotten better since his debut feature Some Kind of Hate, and even since his segment in the anthology Holidays. His focus on heavy themes surrounding mental health here make for a film that’s enjoyable on several levels, never taking away from the fact this is also just a solid horror that creeps under the flesh and camps out a while.