When Adam Wingard’s live-action US-set reimagining of ‘Death Note‘ was announced, I had mixed feelings. Excitement at the prospect of another film from one of my favourite genre directors (The Guest is in my top 10 of all time, a criminally underseen B-movie flick). But also trepidation. The incredible source manga of the same name, written by Tsugumi Obha and illustrated by Takeshi Obata, is 2,400 pages long, and was my gateway into manga over 10 years ago. The best adaptation (and there have been many) thus far, is the wildly popular 37-episode anime series, which is often touted as one of the best anime series, period. The big question forming in my mind was ‘how on earth do you fit such a rich mythos into 100 minutes?’
And let me tell you now, the answer is, you don’t. With a simplified plot, Death Note tells the tale of high school student Light Turner (Nat Wolff) who is handed a supernatural notebook, the Death Note, that belongs to Ryuk (voiced by Willem Defoe), a bored Shinigami (God of death). As owner of the Death Note, Light has the power to kill any person whose name he writes in it. With his girlfriend, Mia Sutton (Margaret Qualley), he begins a vigilante quest to rid the world of evil, ending the lives of those they deem unworthy of life – criminals, mostly. As the death toll exceeds 400, he attracts the attention of the mysterious master detective known only as L (Lakeith Stanfield), and a deadly game of cat-and-mouse ensues.
The cast for the most part are adequate, with two stand-outs, who are both, unfortunately, underused: Lekeith Stanfield as L and Willem Defoe as the voice of Ryuk. L is a curious man, preferring to crouch on chairs rather than sit and eating copious amounts of candy for nutrition. Stanfield plays the character note-perfectly, never making his quirks a comedic crutch, but rather giving insight to an incredibly intelligent man most likely on the autism spectrum. L is the voice of reason. Comparatively, Ryuk is the voice of chaos. Even though all Defoe lends is his voice to the character, he is at his menacing best. In an interview with IGN, Defoe describes Ryuk as “half-mentor, half-tormentor”, and Defoe taps into that with ease. Ryuk’s laugh in this film will stick with me for the rest of my natural-born life.
As a person knocking on 30’s door, my empathy for whiney-ass teenagers has all but gone. And I think this is why I struggled with the central couple. Nat Wolff and Margaret Qualley do what they can with the roles they given, but somehow they felt predictable and one-dimensional. Almost stereotypical. He, a supposedly intelligent nerd boy, and her, a sassy cheerleader turned bad girl. There’s a bit of a Bonnie and Clyde vibe, that is never fully realised.
The new setting of Seattle feels grounded, whilst allowing for the more fantastical elements of the story. Pier 57 on Elliott Bay, adorned with the Seattle Great Wheel, features in two pivotal moments: a moment of love under the bright sunshine, and a moment of despair in deepest night. It forms a iconic backdrop to the film – much the same as the Coney Island ferris wheel does in The Warriors (1978).
Director Adam Wingard has such a destinctive style that is painted all over Death Note. From the synth-dreanched 80s-inspired soundtrack (which I absolutely loved – hurry up onto vinyl already), to the pulpy neon colours, to the ultra-violence, to the electric final act, this screams “I am a Wingard movie!” Unfortunately, none of the elements I adore in Wingard’s work could save the film from it’s own pacing issues. Plot point after plot point after plot point are fired in such quick succession, it is both jarring and discombobulating. It took me a solid 40 minutes to aclimatise to the unrelenting speed – I just really wish it had been given a bit of space to breathe.
Death Note could have been a truly great American adaptation of the famous Japanese property, and more to the point, I really wanted it to be. If given an extra 30 minutes, and stronger leads, perhaps it would have been. My advice to fans of the source material (I count myself in this group) is to approach the film as though you know nothing, and it is still serviceable. For everyone else, its an enjoyable, if hurried, mystical thriller.
Sasha’s rating: 5.5 out of 10
Director: Adam Wingard
Starring: Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield, Margaret Qualley, Willem Dafoe, Jason Liles