Death Note, 2017
Directed by Adam Wingard
Starring Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield, Willem Dafoe, Margaret Qualley, Shea Whigham
Light Turner, a bright student, stumbles across a mystical notebook that has the power to kill any person whose name he writes in it. Light decides to launch a secret crusade to rid the streets of criminals. Soon, the student-turned-vigilante finds himself pursued by a famous detective known only by the alias L.
Adapting an anime/manga to life-action as heralded as many successful results as video game adaptations at this point. Just earlier this year we had the box office bomb and critically-derided Ghost in the Shell, and the recent news of a live-action Cowboy Bebop wasn’t met with the greatest of reaction. But how will Adam Wingard hold up with his American re-imagining of Death Note?
This US take on Death Note follows a similar set up to the original: Light is a smart kid at school when he stumbles upon the Death Note, a book from another realm of existence which has the ability to kill the person whose name is written inside. There are rules to follow, but the goal is simple. But rather than use the book for evil, Light and Mia – the object of his affection – use it to ‘heal’ the world, while being hunted down by L.
When reviewing a film like Death Note, it’s important to try and not compare this version to its animated counterpart. The same goes for comic book movies and video game adaptations. It is difficult, but it had to be judged on its own merits. So does Death Note succeed where others have failed?
In a simple word, yes.
Adam Wingard is a director who comes to this game with a great pedigree. He shot to popularity among horror fans with his indie movies You’re Next and The Guest, but – although technically efficient – his Blair Witch sequel went down as well as the last time they tried to do a sequel to The Blair Witch Project. His next movie is Godzilla vs. Kong, and he’s also got the English language remake of I Saw The Devil still on the cards. And, really, it’s Wingard’s technical flair and understanding of the source material that helps Death Note work. Is it brilliant? Not quite, but it’s a really good movie.
Nat Wolff – who was excellent in his small role in The Fault in our Stars – is very enjoyable as Light, and he balances stoic, fright and menace really well. Margaret Qualley is also very enjoyable as Mia, but the star of the show is Lakeith Stanfield as the mysterious detective L that steals the show. He takes the quirky nature of the character but makes it relatable and even likeable (something the animated version misses). You believe each line, even if it’s contrived dialogue. And it would be almost impossible to talk about Death Note without mentioning the perfectly cast William Dafoe as the Shinigami that follows Light around, Ryuk. Even only appearing in voice, Dafoe is an incredible presence, and he raises the bar of Death Note more than anyone could imagine.
The design of Ryuk is also really impressive. One could argue that too much is shown (the ‘less is more’ argument), but his menacing face, grotesque teeth and gothic attire really stand out against everything else on screen. It would have been easy for Wingard to change the look of Ryuk for a Western audience (dumb it down, if you will), in fear that they ‘wouldn’t get’ his Eastern design – and if Death Note had been made in the Hollywood System you could almost guarantee that. But Wingard knows what fans of the source material want to see, and that design carries over to newcomers as well. It’s really well crafted.
Coming from Wingard, Death Note is rather bloody and gory at times, sometimes unnecessarily so. Some restraint would have served the film better, and the Final Destination-esque death scenes can sometimes be so distracting they take away from the impact of the kill. It’s a minor criticism, but it could turn off some viewers.
But even with that one nitpick – though this writer is sure fans of the source material will have many more that will likely be arbitrary – Wingard’s Death Note is a really great movie. It has good moments of suspense, the performances are really enjoyable, and the overall presentation is quite wonderful. As stated earlier, it’s far from perfect but it’s one of the better Western adaptations of an Eastern medium.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Luke Owen is the Deputy Editor of Flickering Myth, the co-host of The Flickering Myth Podcast and the author of Lights, Camera, GAME OVER!: How Video Game Movies Get Made. You can follow him on Twitter @ThisisLukeOwen.