I have no doubt that this film will one day go down as one of the greatest psychological horror films ever made. Starring promising young actors Miles Robbins and Patrick Schwarzenegger, Daniel Isn’t Real plays like a closeup study of madness and fear as it takes over a person’s mind. I would say it is like Fight Club with a mix of Donnie Darko, but it feels cheap to compare it to any other film. Just to give you a general idea, imagine if the confident Tyler Durden was also a shape-shifting demon. Add in some freaky body horror and twisted psychological puzzles and you’re good to go.
Based on the novel, “In This Way I was Saved” by Brian DeLeeuw, Daniel Isn’t Real is about a troubled college freshman named Luke who reunites with his childhood imaginary friend, Daniel, when he needs a shoulder to lean on. Despite their innocent beginning, the film never releases its grip on the tension simmering underneath their relationship. Like a fractured image improperly put back together, it doesn’t appear strange until you notice the giant crack running down the middle.
You know almost instantly that something isn’t quite right about Daniel. From the way that he appears to his fervent stare, but just like any other imaginary friend, Daniel helps Luke. He gives him advice, improves his confidence, and ultimately breaks him free of his “mental prison.”
However, it’s pretty obvious to anyone paying attention that Daniel is indeed very real. He knows too much. More than a manifestation of Luke’s mind would ever know.
Battling our dark selves
Before long, Daniel reveals his true self, a vicious parasite in search of a malleable host. The moment when we realize for certain that Daniel is something more than imaginary is a moment comparable to a rape scene. While Luke is intoxicated, Daniel violently overpowers his body and takes control, using it to have sex with a female student. Leaving Luke to weakly scream in the corner begging for his body back.
It’s the dark moment where the film stops being about a lonely boy with an overactive imagination and takes a violent turn, wondering into some incredibly disturbing territories. In some ways, Daniel can be interpreted as Luke’s dark side or, in the words of Sigmund Freud, his id. Luke is everything “good” and Daniel is everything “bad”, but sometimes it’s the “bad” that we need to survive. Only we need to know where to draw the line. Freedom can quickly turn into chaos.
A dark story about mental illness
The film features a hazy line separating supernatural activities and mental illness. Luke’s mother (Mary Stuart Masterson) suffers from schizophrenia and Luke lives in constant fear of inheriting her illness. He’s socially isolated and has an active imagination, two traits that unfortunately fall into the stereotype of being mentally ill. Not to mention, schizophrenia is genetic and usually reveals itself during a person’s mid-20’s.
As someone who also has a schizophrenic parent, the consumption of fear taking hold of Luke is pretty spot-on. Though a tad exaggerated. At least from my perspective. I’ve seen complaints about the film’s use of demons when exploring mental illness, but I prefer to see it as a demonizing of fear rather than the illness in general. Sometimes the fear of something is worse than the thing itself.
Daniel Isn’t Real is just amazing! Directed by Adam Egypt Mortimer, the film also stars Sasha Lane, Hannah Marks, and Chukwudi Iwuji.(5 / 5)
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