Adam Wingard pulls off a bloody, beautiful adaptation of the famous anime series that verges on greatness but doesn’t quite hit its mark.
“Rule 1. The human whose name is written in this note shall die… Rule 2. This note will not take effect unless the writer has the person’s face in their mind when writing his or her name.”
Shall we begin?
Death Note has a remarkably simple premise that’s the sort of thing that’s super cool to a bunch of teenagers, but also right up the alley of sophisticated adults. It’s kind of beautiful how much of an equalizer the idea behind Death Note is. Basically, if whoever’s in possession of the Death Note writes someone’s name in it, that person will die. Get it? Good. It’s a simple idea, but because of that, it’s allowed to be played within such interesting ways. It’s part of the reason why the Death Note series has become an institution in Japan, where what started as a manga, has grown into an anime and a property that’s seen several live-action films, with it being one of the most popular anime exports in recent years (there was a reason the series was on Netflix before they decided to distribute this new feature film adaptation).
The recent failure of live-action anime adaptations like Ghost in the Shell has made the territory shaky ground to tread on, but unlike Ghost in the Shell’s adaptation, Adam Wingard fundamentally understands and appreciates his source material. He doesn’t just want to make something that looks cool (but by the way, this does look very cool). Wingard finds fantastic, original ways to bring to life Light’s pursuit for a “new world” where he’s God, while also shining light on the idea that Light (or “Kira,” his killing moniker) might not be any better than the criminals that he’s killing.
Right off the bat, it’s nice to see the film not wasting any time and it jumping into things only a few minutes into its runtime. Death Note is far from a long movie, but decisions like this make it a concise experience that immediately grabs hold of you. The rules of the situation that Light finds himself in are made very clear, as well as the stakes of what he’s playing with. It’s not long after that that “Kira” already has thousands of loyal followers that are praising his actions.
Wingard’s take on all of this is a little more interested in the black humor of this premise than the original anime was, but this slightly different tonal choice works well for the film. The result often feels like Final Destination on steroids mixed with the moral territory of Minority Report, which is pretty damn wonderful. It’s frankly a little comforting to see Wingard be able to lean into the film’s humor and explore the absurdity of everything that’s going on. The scene where Light first meets Ryuk, his Death God, mines some wonderful comedy out of Light’s bewilderment at what’s going on. It’s the perfect juxtaposition to this ultra-dark world that the film wallows in.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Wingard also doesn’t hold back on the gore here and it’s nice to see him taking advantage of the freedom that Netflix has given him. Wingard orchestrates dozens of delightfully morbid death scenes here that only continue to escalate as Light’s ego continues to run amok. It’s worth mentioning that Jason Eisener (Hobo With A Shotgun and V/H/S 2) is Wingard’s second unit director here and apparently he handled a lot of the gory massacres that go down.
So much of what makes Death Note work is that it’s a tight character study between two masters of their trade. It’s the very best sort of cat-and-mouse narrative where everyone is acting duplicitous and the roles of who are really good and evil are constantly in flux. The film portrays Light (Nat Wolff) as a kid who’s too smart for his own good and constantly finding himself being held back with the scales never weighing in his favor. This version of the character is not the near-genius that he is in the anime, but he’s still very ahead of the curve. He’s also exactly the sort of person that can get into the idea of suddenly stacking the deck for those that “deserve it” when he comes into contact with the Death Note.
Alternatively, the gleeful, almost child-like attitude around Ryuk, Light’s Death God that accompanies the Death Note, is really fantastic. The work done to bring the crazy creature to life is phenomenal and Willem Dafoe is clearly having a great time getting in this monster’s head. The demon’s whole obsession with apples is a cute little quirk, too. The anime explains that apples are like tobacco and alcohol to Death Gods, complete with them causing withdrawals, but here it’s just allowed to be a weird character affection.
Wingard also does a good job accentuating the tension and lack of understanding between Light and his father, something that only intensifies once he’s put on the investigation to catch his son. It’s another welcome dynamic to Light’s troubled life pre-Death Note and how he can slowly get pushed towards abandoning those things while embracing his new “calling.”
It’s difficult to watch Light becoming increasingly comfortable with killing people. He gradually becomes less concerned over his rules and more concerned about getting caught. He’s fundamentally changed by the power of the Death Note and Wolff does a fantastic job here where the God-like version of Light at the end of the film is barely recognizable from the one at the start of the movie. At one point this message gets especially hammered in when Light talks to his dad about the lesser of two evils and the world being a place where things aren’t black or white.
The film also has a lot of fun with Light’s many flashy assassinations that happen on live television broadcasts that hold the whole nation paralyzed in terror. They’re carried out in a super effective manner that helps hammer in the scope of what’s going on here and how the entire world is aware of Light’s actions.
When Light’s/Kira’s crimes hit such a fever pitch, it only makes sense to bring in the investigative big guns, with L (Lakeith Stanfield) being the ying to Light’s yang. Death Note pushes forward a rather different interpretation of L, but they make it their own and he’s still a strong adversary to Light. Their dynamic and back and forth is so crucial to this story working and the liberties taken here end up working in the adaptation’s favor. Lakeith Stanfield does wonderful work in the role, while still managing to pay respect to the original character in subtle ways like his body language and mannerisms.
L seems to always be ahead of Light and knows exactly what he’s up to, yet it still makes for compelling and suspenseful action. It’s great to see L operating with this superhuman-like efficiency while then also scarfing down candy. It’s a deeply anachronistic performance that verges on getting a little too quirky for its own good, but it knows when to hold back. It ended up being my favorite performance from the whole film and Stanfield’s work really speaks for itself.
Underneath all of these other relationships is the dynamic shared between Light and his twisted, perverse “love story” with Mia (Margaret Qualley). The film plays Light’s growing romance with Mia in tandem with his killings beginning to grow out of control and the two starting to think of themselves as new Gods who have “solved crime.” Of course, this twisted romance begins to go up in flames as dueling consciences between Light and Mia shoot holes in their bulletproof future.
Around the sharp performances, Wingard utilizes moody slow motions and fades to create a hazy world where things bleed together. It makes for a strong way to visually accentuate Light’s malaise before he “wakes up.” Wingard’s inspirations and visual homages here are clearly borrowing more from Western cinema than other anime or more Eastern influences. For instance, there’s a fantastic, relentless foot chase that goes down in the film’s final act that immediately draws French Connection and Se7en to mind. The filters, tones, and textures during the scenes at night are also reminiscent of night scenes from Fight Club, Taxi Driver, or Bringing Out the Dead. There are some extremely meticulous examples of shot composition and symmetry that brought The Shining or A Clockwork Orange to mind, too. All of these are great influences and texts to be thematically pulling from for a film of this nature. Some of my favorite camerawork in the film involved the production using a remote roll-over-rig for the crazier Ryuk shots. They’re highly unconventional and they capture such unique, specific angles and looks for the unusual character. All of this is then complimented with beautiful Carpenter-esque ‘80s synth, not unlike the score from another film of Wingard’s, The Guest.
All in all, Wingard provides what’s ultimately a pretty simple take on the source material, but honestly, I’d prefer that to something that tries to cram in too much. doubt they’ll make a sequel to this (although I’d be all for one), but if they choose to, there is plenty of stuff to draw from in the anime to carry on the complicated mythology of this world. Death Note verges on being very good the whole time where you’re just waiting for it to take that extra step into awesomeness, but for me it never happened. That being said, there’s still a little final act twist that keeps the experience entertaining right until it’s over. It might feel like a bit of a cheat, but it still stays within the many guidelines that restrict the Death Note’s powers. This is still a wonderful movie and a very impressive adaptation on some heady source material. It’s also likely the best looking film that Adam Wingard has made to date, which is certainly saying something. However, it kept feeling like there was one final piece of the puzzle to fall into place that just never did.
Or maybe I was just thinking about how there weren’t any potato chips.
‘Death Note’ begins streaming on Netflix on August 25th