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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

Daniel Isn’t Real movie review: or is he?

Daniel Isn't Real green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

Stylistically sophisticated and psychologically insightful, this is an exquisitely ambiguous and inventively disturbing mashup of body horror, demonic possession, and Lovecraftian science fiction.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): did I need another movie attempting to get me to sympathize with a violent man? no I did not
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, male protagonist
(learn more about this)

Trauma opens a path in our minds and our psyches for monsters to enter and plague us. This is the penetrating gut of Daniel Isn’t Real, one of the more psychologically insightful horror movies I’ve seen in a long time. Though I find that a low bar, so perhaps take that impression with a grain of salt.

There is so much exquisite ambiguity in this tale of New York City college student Luke (Miles Robbins: Halloween, Blockers), who “reconnects” with his imaginary childhood friend Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger: Midnight Sun, Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse) in a moment of personal crisis. Is Daniel a “mere” embodiment of Luke’s inner turmoil, perhaps even indicative of incipient schizophrenia, or is Daniel authentically a separate entity of some supernatural sort that has taken root inside Luke?

Daniel Isn't Real Griffin Nathan Chandler Reid Robert Faulkner Mary Stuart Masterson

When you indulge a child’s conceit of “the imaginary friend,” you are granting a pathway to a demon. Or are you?

By immersing us in the utter personal subjectivity of Luke’s relationship with Daniel, director Adam Egypt Mortimer leaves that all up in the air. (I have not read the novel, originally titled In This Way I Was Saved, by Brian DeLeeuw that this is based on, and which Mortimer adapted with the author. But a glance at the synopsis suggests that the book may be rather less ambiguous.) Very early on, for instance, an “am I hearing that or not?” knocking on the soundtrack is there to indicate Daniel’s insistence on getting out of the mental “dollhouse” in which Luke has imprisoned him. For all my issues, I’ve never suffered from any diagnosable mental illness (at least I don’t think so), and yet, as far as I can say, this movie seems to depict — in a realistically haunted, tormented way — what it must be like to feel less than at home and relaxed in your own head. And it only gets more perturbingly horrifying from there.

The increasingly twisted path that the narcissistically aggressive Daniel pushes the far more gentle and sensitive Luke onto at first bothered me; is this film — stylistically and visually sophisticated and, what’s more, convincing, especially for only a second feature — merely a slick gloss on male violence and emotional immaturity? Eventually I decided that it was not, as it leads us into dark realms of inventively disturbing body horror, demonic possession, and Lovecraftian science fiction. The suggestion that all such nightmares might be manifestations of the same psychological disturbance — for all of us, not just poor Luke — may be the most intriguing thing about this unnerving movie.

Click here for my ranking of this and 2019’s other releases.

red light 3.5 stars

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Daniel Isn’t Real (2019) | directed by Adam Egypt Mortimer
US/Can release: Dec 06 2019 (VOD same day)
UK/Ire release: Feb 07 2020

MPAA: not rated
BBFC: rated 15 (strong violence, bloody images, horror, drug misuse, sex, language)

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

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