Death Note (2017)

2017 | Unrated (R equivalent for graphic violence) | starring Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield | directed by Adam Wingard | 1hr 41mins |

2017 Halloween Horrorfest #2

The Japanese animated series Death Note isn’t really a horror story or a thriller. It’s more of a cat and mouse game. A thought provoking power fantasy built around it’s own tightly controlled set of rules and an anti-social protagonist working though immense power who figures out ways to exploit it. It also not particularly cinematic, mostly set around it’s main character, Light, sitting in his bedroom and (like most Anime I’ve seen) over-explaining every motivation he has. It often feels like an essay in search of a story, but a very clever essay.

The premise, ripe with potential, further explored as the series goes on: a Death God’s notebook falls to Earth and into the hands of high schooler Light Turner. The book allows him to kill at will simply by writing a name and method in it’s pages. Light goes on a God-like crusade to cleanse the Earth by remotely executing criminals while the authorities, lead by super-intelligent profiler “L”, try to track him down and the public praises this wave of anonymous justice. Writer/Director Adam Wingard comes in to helm this, the first American adaptation, transplanting the story from Japan to Seattle, changing Light’s home life, completely flipping his relationship with the Death God (voiced by Willem Dafoe) now attached to the boy with the Death Note and completely omitting some of the more interesting rules of the notebook. We could talk all day about the changes, that’s expected with any adaption of something this expansive, but what’s more interesting is the result of each one. Each change in Death Note is aimed to shrink and simplify the movie into more easily digestible, recognizable genre fare.

For example, the movie creates a plotline where Light’s mother has been killed and the killer has walked free in a little bit of unnecessary hand-holding so the audience will go along with a main character who wants to exact murderous justice. However, Light in the Anime not having a personal stake in revenge, wielding the Death Note out of a desire to strike fear in the hearts of criminals he sees on the news every night always made him a more interesting, enigmatic anti-hero. He seemed to have a bit of a power-complex from the start, relishing in his role to the point he uncovers loophole in the rules the Death God didn’t even know. Wingard’s Light is far less interesting, intelligent and feels more manipulated by the Death God.

Wingard has made too many good movies at this point (Your Next and The Guest sit near the top of recent cult favorites that more people should see) for me to think it was Wingard who thought it was a good idea to reverse engineer Death Note back into a high school revenge story about a guy (Nat Wolff, Paper Towns) and his girlfriend (Margaret Qualley) going on a telepathic Bonnie and Clyde spree to rid the world of scum. Death Note feels more like a case of a movie starved for finances. After all, even if your source material is popular, producers are still skittish about stories where their heroes are this desensitized to brutal violence. That’s one thing to the movie’s credit. Wingard doesn’t hold back on the gore, delivering Light’s deaths in unflinching gruesome ways that give the film a nice exploitation quality.

Technically, the movie works around budget constraints. It looks a lot like The Guest, with Wingard splashing scenes with lots of vibrant neon reds and blues and some of the slow motion shots (particularly in the third act) are gorgeous. He again fills the soundtrack with a pumping 80s vibe, this time with an Atticus Ross score.  Also in the plus column, Lakeith Stanfield is particularly good as “L”. The script leaves “L” pretty much untouched and Stanfield seems to relish in his peculiarities. Stanfield’s performance in the first half is the highlight of the film.

I realize this is an inordinate amount of comparisons to the original work, but even going into Death Note cold I imagine to be a frustrating experience. The problem with this kind of power fantasy story is the characters never do what we think we would do, and even then Note feels particularly empty in the idea well. We don’t get to see it play out to the most realized extreme. Watching this movie contract to a police chase film instead of expand to a movie about a teenage God is deeply unsatisfying. The Death Note story brings up a rocketship full of existential ideas and social structures to comment on or satirize (religion, media influence, economics of crime, on and on…) but this movie (and in fairness the series as well) wants none of it. Instead we get stilted and obvious dialog and a movie that leans back heavily on genre clichés until it chokes. It looks good at times, but is completely hollow and collapses into a mess. Sometimes missed opportunities are more frustrating than no opportunity at all.

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