Director: Adam Wingard
Cast: Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield, Margaret Qualley, Shea Whigham, Paul Nakauchi and Willem Defoe
Plot: A boy in high school (Wolff) is given a book that he can use to kill anyone from anywhere in the world.
Death Note is a stunningly amazing story, an anime that focuses on complex issues and dark moralistic questions. It features, as most strong animes do, a quiet yet intelligent boy (Light Turner – the most bizarre name in literary history), navigating high school, partly focusing on how unfair his life is (his mother was murdered by a mobster), and partly making eyes at the hot cheerleader, out of his league. This boy is then given a mysterious book out of nowhere called the Death Note. Inside are a list of rules that explain the power behind the book. Write the name of anyone in the world, while picturing their face in your head, and you can choose how they die. At first, Light Turner kills off the school bully, then promotes his rage towards the likes of the mobster who killed his mother. Then he questions what is next. Does he get rid of the book now he has conquered his enemies? Or does he try and do some good for the world? Light is fuelled by two motivations: his mother died because the authorities hadn’t had the power to do the right thing. Now he has the power, can he really stand by and let the world suffer at the hands of ISIS leaders and paedophile killers? Of course, if you have the power to kill anyone, does that make you any better than the bad guys you are trying to kill? But the second reason, Light does what he does is the fact that if he doesn’t have the Death Note, who does? As the ghostly Death God that comes with the book, watching and cackling as the events take place, reminds Light, if the book isn’t used for seven days, he will take it and pass it on to someone else. If Light isn’t killing these bad guys, what is stopping the book from falling into the hands of someone who goes around murdering her ex-boyfriends or carries out his serial killer tendencies?
As you can imagine, when Adam Wingard, director of some incredibly strong cinematic works in the horror genre, got his hands on this anime, he was practically jumping with joy at the narrative potential in his hands. There are so many directions to take it. And perhaps this is Death Note’s only, or at least biggest, problem. With a story this vast, where is your focus? As the story races along, you get the feeling that this was once a Netflix series rather than a movie, but condensed down in the final edit to hit a two hour running time. The opening minute sees the Death Note fall out of the sky and into Light’s hand, character development be damned. From there on, the story hurtles along at a break-neck speed, almost too dizzying to keep up with. The actors do a fine job of making their characters both likeable and interesting, despite only getting mere seconds of introduction to work with. Even if you are losing track of the story, you have to admire how well Wingard tells his story with only a few frames. Most directors would have spent several scenes telling stories that Wingard condenses into a few moments in a montage. Death Note becomes a case of patiently waiting to see where the story settles and find common ground, depending on where Wingard wants to focus his story. The understanding of the Death Note is breezed over in ten minutes. Even the leap from bully to global villains is largely glossed over, the moral debate between adopting a vigilante lifestyle turned to a few broody shots. Some will see this as a poor adaptation of the manga or anime, killing the very interesting moral core at the very heart of this manga. If you remove the question of being a vigilante, then what remains? The answer is that Wingard has other ambitions for the film. He treats the first half hour as an origin story (Light finding the Death Note, killing his enemies, becoming a global name – an unknown vigilante dubbed Kira), and slows his film down to introduce Lakeith Stanfield’s L, the prodigy detective charged with uncovering who Kira is. Death Note evolves into a two-handed tale about Kira struggling to keep his secret identity private, as he wrestles with the implications of his lifestyle, and L, an eccentric young person who has to figure out how to take down a person with the power to kill anyone anywhere in the world, made complicated by the fact that half the city treat Kira as a God. Lakeith Stanfield is one of the stronger actors here, a fan favourite from the initial introduction to his character, but when the character peels back the hard exterior, surprising emotional depth remains. Stanfield’s performance is only bested by an incredible Willem Defoe as the Death God, a terrifying creation, both gruesome to look at yet good fun, as he pokes fun at the hero’s plight, clearly crossing his fingers for the worst possible outcome. When Death Note finally finds solid ground to build traction with its story, it becomes a nail-biting thriller, rocketing forward towards a direction with no clear end. As each narrative beat uncovers a new shock (Light’s cheerleader crush isn’t ready to give up their power, Light goes after the people L cares about), the story becomes more and more exciting. It culminates in a very Adam Wingard way. We have the atmospheric lighting, the electro soundtrack, coupled with some 80s power ballads, and centred in a high school setting with the pulsating undercurrent of supernatural threat. The end twists, shocks and impresses, especially the closing few shots that are beautifully designed.
Final Verdict: Death Note might be ropey and rushed in places, but when it gets to the good stuff, this is Netflix at its very best.