Director: Adam Wingard
Cast: Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield, Margaret Qualley, Shea Whigham, Paul Nakauchi, Jason Liles, Willem Dafoe, Jack Ettlinger, Matthew Kevin Anderson, Chris Britton, Timothy Lambert, Kwesi Ameyaw
Running Time: 100 min.
By Z Ravas
The Hollywood remake of Death Note is a project that’s been passed like a hot potato from filmmaker to filmmaker for the better part of a decade. Back in 2011, it looked like Lethal Weapon scribe and Iron Man 3 director Shane Black would be the unlikely creator behind the camera; once he left the project due to creative differences with Warner Brothers, indie auteur Gus Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho) was even floated as a possible contender. Instead, the movie quietly found a home in 2015 with both Netflix and director Adam Wingard, who may have already had a relationship with the company thanks to his films like You’re Next and V/H/S finding the majority of their audience through the streaming service.
Two years later and the movie has finally made its debut, only to immediately be met with derision and scorn from fans of the popular manga and anime, who have balked at the notion of condensing a 15 hour anime into a single film as well as the casting of a white lead (despite the story being relocated from Tokyo to suburban Seattle). In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll say my prior experience with the series is an appreciation of Shusuke Kaneko’s (Gamera: Guardian of the Universe) two-part live-action adaptation, which astonishingly came out over a decade now. Rather than compare Netflix’s Death Note to that release, or even the 12-volume manga, I chose to approach this movie on its own terms as the next film from promising young director Adam Wingard… since it is the next film from Adam Wingard.
If you wondered why the producers of Netflix’s Death Note would secure Wingard for this adaptation of the Japanese property, it becomes abundantly clear early on in that they must have been massive fans of his 2014 film The Guest. That movie served as a loving homage to Eighties horror/thrillers like The Terminator, and launched the big screen career of Beauty and the Beast’s Dan Stevens; it also featured the best Steven Seagal-style bar fight since Steven Seagal stopped having fights in bars. From the sleek neon lighting and ceaseless downpour of Seattle rain, to the moody electronic score and doomed high school dance, there’s much of this Death Note that at times feels like a redux of The Guest. If you’re like me, and consider The Guest to be one of the best genre flicks of the last decade, you’ll likely be simultaneously pleased and struck with familiarity, like hearing a pleasant cover song.
The Eighties horror movie theatrics feel entirely appropriate, given the dark premise at the heart of Death Note: a social outcast named Light (Nat Wolff) receives a supernatural journal that allows him to strike dead anyone he wishes just by visualizing their face and writing their name in its pages. It isn’t long before Light confesses his secret to his high school crush Misa (Margaret Qualley from HBO’s The Leftovers), like some perverse reversal of the ‘superhero revealing their identity’ trope. The duo quickly become lovers and vigilante executioners, seeking to rid the world of its worst terrorists and predators while creating a global cult to their imaginary death god Kiro. However, when Light’s own father – a Seattle cop played by Shea Wingham (Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans) – teams up a renowned junior detective named L (Get Out’s Keith Stanfield), the net tightens around Light and his murderous crusade against crime.
In contrast to Shusuke Kaneko’s adaptation, in which the quirky and candy-addicted L stole the movie as a teenage Batman-esque detective (complete with his own Alfred-like butler!), it’s clear that Wingard’s fascination lies more with Light and his girlfriend Misa. The young couple’s repeated use of the Death Note allows them to feel above the rest of humanity thanks to a Crime and Punishment-esque superiority complex; but seeds of mistrust are sown between the two once they develop very different ideas about how to best utilize the lethal tome. It’s here that Wolff and Qualley really shine as the kind of disaffected duo who, in the absence of the Death Note, may have formed a suicide pact or shot up their school. To the actors’ credit, they manage to keep this kids highly watchable despite the fact that they’re stone cold sociopaths; less convincing is the film’s attempt to sell us on the worldwide cult of personality that has developed around Kiro since the screenplay rarely leaves the state of Washington.
Death Note’s secret weapon may be its breathless pacing. Perhaps it’s merely due to its presence on Netflix, but Wingard’s film often feels like an eight episode mini-series edited down to a brisk 100 minutes; Wingard wastes no time and puts Light in possession of the Death Note and committing his first murder by the ten minute mark, in an elaborate Rube Goldberg-esque sequence of events that recalls the Final Destination series. Unfortunately, these quite fun – and quite gory – death setpieces (deathpieces?) all but disappear during the second half as the movie turns into a straight ahead cat-and-mouse thriller between Light and his rival L. The mental chess game between these two may have been the highlight of the Japanese version, but here I found the exaggerated origin of L – an orphan raised by birth to be an international supercop who works outside the law but with the law’s assistance – only clashed with the relatively realistic tone Wingard strikes. Or at least as realistic as you can get with an eight foot-tall demon lurking in the shadows.
Yes, I would be amiss if I didn’t at least mention Ryuk, the avatar of death who serves as the custodian of the Death Note. He’s a creepy-looking creation right out of the early Tim Burton playbook, and here is ably voiced by Willem Dafoe, an actor who can do sinister and menacing in his sleep. That said, the screenplay doesn’t find much for Ryuk to do other than glower from the corner of the frame; he’s mostly here to remind Light of the Death Note’s various binding rules, and – going back to Final Destination – is perhaps not dissimilar to Tony Todd’s character in those movies.
The fact that Death Note ends with much of its story left unresolved, cryptically teasing the motivations for a possible sequel, is not likely to help Netflix win over fans who already regard this American remake with ill will. Fortunately, those folks will always have their beloved manga and anime to continue to enjoy. Approaching this Death Note on its own terms, as a straight-to-streaming horror movie, I found it to be a fairly solid Adam Wingard film – with a slick look, dreamy soundtrack, and a few creative applications of the Death Note concept. Some have called Netflix’s remake a crime against cinema; this Asian film aficionado would simply call it a fun way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
Z Ravas’ Rating: 7/10