I’ve been a casual fan and observer of “Death Note” since the mid-aughts and have always been fascinated with its premise and the moral dilemmas it props up for the audience and its characters. It’s almost like “The Box” but with a hit of adrenaline and more complex ideas and philosophies. Director Adam Wingard adapts “Death Note” for a new audience, taking the material from Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, and adding his own quirks, ideas, and dashes of dark comedy. What we get is a stark, entertaining horror movie that is very much a “Death Note” tale, but one that works in its own rhythm for a broader audience, without alienating the core fan base.
Director Wingard wisely doesn’t spend the one hundred minute run time of “Death Note” on endless exposition. Instead he and writers Charley Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides, and Jeremy Slater explain certain elements and keep minor points ambiguous. Even through the very end, a lot of what we know about the book is shrouded in mystery and we can never be sure what to make of the demon and book keeper Ryuk. Is he a cursed demon looking for someone to take his place in hell, or is he just a demon having some good old fun with us stupid humans? “Death Note” stars Nat Wolff as Light, a brilliant student who spends his days doing assignments for classmates for extra cash. After one unusual stormy day, Light discovers an unusual leather book called “Death Note” and much to his horror is approached by an enigmatic firey eyed demon named Ryuk.
Ryuk offers to give the book to Light, explaining that by writing names down on the book, Light has the power to decide who dies, and how. Filled with rage over the death of his mother at the hands of a powerful gangster, Light begins to take it upon himself to begin striking down criminals and murderers across the country. With his new girlfriend Mia (A very good Margaret Qualley), they set out to right a lot of wrongs with the alias of Kira. But things get complicated with a mastermind detective named “L” begins tracking down “Kira.” “Death Note” is altered in the realm of motivations and aesthetic, where director Wingard frames the movie as more of a teen drama with a heavy emphases morality and an eighties motif. While the original movie was more a crime thriller with a cat and mouse game, Light is depicted as more of a confused character who takes his role as “Kira” seriously, and begins to rationalize a lot of his actions and murders.
Lakeith Stanfield who gave a memorable turn in “Get Out,” is excellent as the enigmatic “L,” a brilliant avenger who is committed to stopping Light at all costs, and becomes obsessed with stopping him the more people around him begin dying by the spell of the book. Stanfield has a good time in the role and Wingard stages some great moments with Wolff, including a confrontation in a restaurant. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Willem Dafoe who is a dynamo as the morally ambiguous monster Ryuk. As the demon and death dealer, Ryuk is someone who constantly taunts Light, and he’s a consistently devious force that lurks in the shadows cackling in delight. The animation for Ryuk is mesmerizing as fans will definitely appreciate how his design isn’t at all a departure from his appearance in the original series.
I wish we could have seen much more of “L” working his magic foiling the crimes of Light, as well as the cat and mouse game that made the original movie so compelling. Stanfield and Wolff work well off of one another and I wish there was more emphases on the pair out witting one another. That said, “Death Note” is a stellar iteration of the series, and Adam Wingard delivers a pulpy and engaging tale of a character pushed in to a corner due to grief,. All the while he successfully explores how the “Death Book” is a weapon of great destruction, as well as a very enticing and seductive tool that appeals to our core desire for power and control over mortality.
Debuting on Netflix August 25th.