Death Note is the American adaptation of the cult Japanese manga and anime. It tells the story of Light Turner, a bullied high school student who comes into possession of a notebook which allows the owner to kill whoever they want. This film has been slated by critics and fans of the anime. I have not read a single page of the manga or watched any of the anime series so I was interested to look at the film objectively. Sadly, although better than the critical reception would have you believe it is still lacking in several key areas.
The positives first. Adam Wingard, who directed Death Note knows horror cinema. He takes inspiration from John Carpenter and Brian De Palma, both directors very close to my heart. His previous films (disregarding Blair Witch)The Guest and You’re Next, told original stories but with Carpenter and de Palma influences and were both excellent. The moments in Death Note that really shine are the ones which seem to pay homage to earlier better films. The opening scene at the school really reminded me of the locker room sequence in Carrie. The theme of evil suburban kids seems to be taken from the cinema of David Lynch and Atticus Ross’ synth score has John Carpenter written all over it. This cine-literate edge helps elevate some of the film.
The cinematography and lighting in Death Note, is superb. The shot composition alone is beautiful and the way CGI is integrated into the film is superb. I was also blown away by the lighting and colour in many scenes. It really reminded of the lighting in The Neon Demon, stylised and beautiful to look at.
The death god Ryuk is easily the most entertaining character in the film. Voiced and performance captured by Willem Dafoe, one of my favourite character actors, Ryuk is dastardly, charismatic and engaging. Dafoe has the perfect voice for the character and I was hoping he would be prominent throughout the rest of the film. However this was not to be. There is a long section in the middle of the film where Ryuk is entirely absent. This is the worst portion of the film.
The negatives of this film are pretty overwhelming however. Margaret Qualley (who is brilliant in The Leftovers), is not given much to do as Mia, Light’s girlfriend and fellow murder conspirator. Shea Wigham is mumbly and dull as Light’s police officer father and Lakeith Stanfield is full of irritating quirks as the ridiculous L (I’m aware most of his character comes from the manga, and I’m sure it works better in the Japanese context, however it didn’t work for a first time viewer). The worst offendor is Nat Wolff as the ridiculously named Light Turner who is one of the most uncharismatic, whiny protagonists I’ve seen in a long time. Perhaps his name should have been changed to avoid my instant scepticism as to why a practical down to earth father would allow his child to be named Light.
The pacing on this film is horrible. Events that could feasibly last an entire film are hurried through. The character’s motivations are muddled and trivialised. The idea obviously has a lot of mileage and I am tempted to see how the anime handles this plot. However, a 100 minute film is just not the medium to cover so many moral and emotionally complex plotlines.
Overall, this film is not the almighty mess that some upset fans would have you believe. Adam Wingard’s direction is solid and Willem Dafoe is a blast to watch. Shame the pair couldn’t team up with a better script.
Death Note is available to watch on Netflix now. Image source: TheJapanTimes.com