A meditation on the familial nature of mental illness and the steady unwinding of a young man’s psyche as he deals with an unstable mother and a broken home life, Daniel Isn’t Real draws clear parallels with last year’s sweaty screamathon, Hereditary. A lot of (very wrong) folks thought that Hereditary wasn’t as strong as it could have been, because the film dived head-first into its witchcraft angle rather than playing a more subtle hand and leaving the possibility of madness on the table. For these people, Daniel Isn’t Real will offer an opposite lens, gazing totally into the eye of madness and leaving its use of demonic horror as symbols. This is about a young man sensing his own steady unraveling and feeling that there’s nothing he can do to stem its tide. His inescapable reality is his inability to control his own mind. There are no witches, here. There’s no demonic possession. Every horror is inside his own head.
What Daniel Isn’t Real has most in common with Hereditary is, however, that it is absolutely unafraid to be totally and without a doubt a horror movie.
Daniel Isn’t Real
Director: Adam Egypt Mortimer
Released: December 6, 2019
After witnessing the bloody aftermath of a mass shooting, Luke (Miles Robbins) invents a friend as a way of coping with his trauma. That friend, Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger) plays with him and keeps him company in an empty home with his mentally unbalanced mother, Clair (Mary Stuart Masterson). The games the two play escalate from broomstick jousting to overdosing Clair on anti-psychotics, which leads Clair to convince the boy that some friends aren’t worth keeping. Naturally, removing the imaginary friend is accomplished by forcing Luke to scream Daniel into some creepy-ass old dollhouse and locking him within forever. That’s what some refer to as tough love. Luke grows up, goes to college, only to find that without him his mother has come completely undone. Their home is in ruins. Clair spends her days searching for secret messages in the newspapers and smashing mirrors to avoid her face. In this house of old demons, Luke finds that dollhouse again, and with it he rediscovers Daniel.
At first Daniel gives Luke charm and confidence, and just like when he was a child Luke’s life seems better and clearer for the addition of Daniel. He gives up a law degree for photography, begins dating an artist, feels noticed and validated for once in his life. He feels as if by connecting with Daniel again he’s connecting with himself. That much is true, but with a step into the psyche of an abandoned imaginary friend, we see that Daniel harbors a mixture of love and disdain for Luke with a furious need to never be shut out again. Daniel hasn’t forgotten the dollhouse, and as Luke spreads his wings Daniel wants to ground him, wants nothing and no one to come between them again, and he’s willing to be as violent and cruel as he deems necessary. For him love only extends as far as his own control.
Schwarzenegger offers a very Patrick Bateman performance, using the slicked-back hair and the straight posture of a businessman or politician to elevate his menace. Long takes of his penetrating glare show Daniel as someone who looks over everything as a game or match, something he can win. He’s never care free. He’s always testing, always looking to assert himself. His imposition is all through his personality. You’ve met (and hated) people like Daniel. He’s the sort of guy who thinks he already owns everything and needs to do little more than reach out and take it. He’s the toxic stereotype of a man too privileged to know or care about how he treats those who surround him, no matter how close. Once Luke allows him a taste of life within a physical skin, Daniel takes charge with an uninhibited id and tears Luke’s world apart.
This is all good, if expected, but what shoots Daniel Isn’t Real into the stratosphere is its visual depiction of Luke’s mental illness. There are layers of Society-esque body horror and grotesque imagery that are both unexpected and haunting. Switching bodies with Daniel causes fleshy worms to wriggle and writhe like globs of melted wax fusing the faces of the two together. Looking in mirrors shows monstrous amalgamations of skin and steel that stand as some of the best horror images of the year. The inside of the dollhouse is a bizarre dungeon at once bathed in a futuristic neon glow and studded with the cobblestones and spikes of a Medieval torture cell. The imagery doubles and triples down on horror, combining visuals you’d be hard-pressed to forget with themes of masculinity, madness, genius, and violence.
Opening on a mass shooting and not shying from depicting the white male terrorist, we see Luke in isolation devolve into a thoughtless misogynist with little care for human life. He becomes a monster, and much like Joker this monster wears a tacky red suit. If you ever see a white dude in a tacky red suit, please run.
Like a paranoid schizophrenic Fight Club, Daniel Isn’t Real casts the masculine ideal of cool as a maniac hellbent on forcing the world into his own image. Schwarzenegger wields that controlled chaos of a monster cased within a bespoke suit beautifully, and Robbins is pitiable and human, as helpless as anyone to stop the weight of his own illness from crushing him. It offers plenty for folks who believe a horror movie ought to try to be more than just a horror movie and plenty for folks who think horror movies are great just on their own. Unlike Hereditary when the wheels come off in the final minutes, and the film leans into full horror, questions still hang on whether Luke’s madness is a form of possession or more of his own self-aggrandizement. Mad men always think of themselves as kings and heroes, the central figures of intricate plots and conspiracies, and how far Luke’s derangement spreads is up to the viewer and the viewer alone to decide.