DANIEL ISN’T REAL
Written by Brian DeLeeuw & Adam Egypt Mortimer; adapted from Brian DeLeeuw’s novel IN THIS WAY I WAS SAVED
Directed by Adam Egypt Mortimer
When Luke was six years-old, he escaped the shouts and smashing crockery of his bickering parents to wander the calm midtown Manhattan streets near his home. Unfortunately, this innocent child inadvertently witnesses the aftermath of a mass shooting in a café. Staring into the dead eyes of a blood soaked victim flopped out on the street, he meets Daniel, another child, exposed to the unwieldy chaos of the big city too. They seemingly play their way out of the sudden trauma, but when his panicking mother, SOME KIND OF WONDERFUL’s Mary Stuart Masterson, finds Luke in the park you discover DANIEL ISN’T REAL. He’s an imaginary friend and relieved to find her son, Masterson entertains Luke’s belief in Daniel and the three of them enter the home. The memory of the shooting disappears into his sub-conscious and aided by his vivid imagination, and validated by his mother’s decision in the park, Luke and Daniel cement their relationship. However, sword fights with broomsticks soon escalate to suggestions of mischief way beyond Luke's undeveloped mind. This new trauma in a young boy’s life is the first indication that Daniel is maybe not a post to lean on when Luke is lonely. With his mother’s help, he ceremonially says goodbye to Daniel.
Fast-forward to college and our hero is free of Daniel’s influence, but the stress of studying is making it increasingly hard to keep a lid on his two hugely damaging suppressed memories. He is worried he is following in his mother’s mentally ill footsteps. His therapist sees an opportunity in exploring the Daniel part of his life and advises: “Don’t be afraid of your imagination. Connect with that part of you.” In a moment of conflict with his clinically depressed mother, the Daniel side of his mind re-appears with the words of wisdom Luke needs to save his mother from herself.
She is sectioned and Luke is left to manage the adult relationship with Daniel alone. At first it is magical and liberating. Luke gets the girls that he is encouraged to make a move on – by Daniel. He sails through hard exams with the help of Daniel. Evidence – hidden in plain sight by the filmmaker - that the presence of this imaginary friend is outside the scope of what Luke could possibly foresee from just his mind. This superpower is best demonstrated when Daniel helps Luke seduce Cassie by reading over her shoulder – something she can’t hear – and for Luke to then recite the passages verbatim like he’s a literary genius. In a pivotal moment, Luke chooses to ignore Daniel’s help when it comes to a verse from the Bible. He makes Cassie laugh, but the disobedience angers Daniel no end. The threatening duality of who Luke really is and the malevolent influence of what Daniel wants or needs gets starker from hereon in. Where Luke was once a considerate lover who asked Cassie for her consent before giving her oral sex, he is now forcefully, bending Sophie over a sofa to f**k her because Daniel’s desires have – literally – fought their way the fore.
Sasha Lane, of AMERICAN HONEY fame, is fantastic as Cassie, the intuitive, and instinctive artist who only sees the good in Luke but senses the dark shadow that hangs over his personality.
The New York subway rattling by and filling the frame in the cut isn’t the only JACOB’S LADDER’s influence director Adam Egypt Mortimer draws on. The disassociation Luke experiences is straight out of Adrian Lyne’s depiction of a living with hell. The parallel fantasy world Mortimer slowly reveals echo HELLRAISER’s breakthrough of what is outside our realm into our ordinary world. This lends the film a Lovercraftian sense of the weird and the eerie. Whereas nods to Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY’s hotel room finale demonstrate a confidence in Mortimer to push the envelope way beyond his debut feature SOME KIND OF HATE.
The horror of DANIEL ISN’T REAL starts before you’ve really had chance to sample your popcorn with a clear view into the abyss. It’s a wild and colourful image that dazzles with promise. The film returns to it around the mid-point before finally revealing this chaotic swirl of psychedelic space and time is Luke’s manifest destiny waiting for him in the future. How we tragically get there is one hell of a cosmic ride around Luke’s fragile mind.