Death Note movie review: Fans of the anime can Netflix and chill; this is how you do remakes
Death Note movie review: Director Adam Wingard has a knack for goofy horror, and in Netflix’s able remake of the Japanese cult phenomenon, he directs the heck out of Nat Wolff and Margaret Qualley.movie reviews Updated: Sep 01, 2017 08:10 IST
Director - Adam Wingard
Cast - Natt Wolff, Margaret Qualley, Willem Dafoe, Lakeith Stanfield
Rating - 3.5
A Seattle high schooler, Light Turner, still in mourning after his mother’s death at the hands of a rich maniac who went scot free, comes across a tatty notebook with the words ‘Death Note’ scratched onto its moth-eaten cover. When he cracks it open, a spikey demon with glowing eyes appears out of the shadows. The demon, who calls himself Ryuk, looks a ghastly cross between the creatures from M Night Shyamalan’s The Village and Pennywise the clown.
Ryuk, who seems to be particularly fond of apples (this detail is in no way important to the plot, but oh well), tells Light, in the rusty voice of Willem Dafoe, that the notebook before him has special powers. If the book’s ‘keeper’ – there can be just one at a time – writes down a person’s name on one of its cracked, yellow pages, picturing that person’s face in their mind as they do it, that person would die. If this power becomes too big a burden to handle, the keeper could pass the book onto someone else.
Light, the demon says, is the book’s new keeper. And to demonstrate its powers, the demon persuades him to write down the school bully’s name in it. Light scrawls a name on a page, pictures the face imprinted in his mind from all the beatings, and adds the word ‘decapitation’ for good measure. Outside, he watches as a chain of events unfurls, and in what appears to be a freak accident, the school bully’s head gets knocked clean off his body in the most grisly manner.
Light freaks out, brought to his knees by what he has just seen, the Ryuk’s cackling growing louder and louder behind him.
Light vows to use his new powers to bring justice to the world. Because based on everything we’ve seen so far, he is, inherently, a good person. The first name on his list: The rich maniac who killed his mom.
As Light racks up the kills – very soon, with the help of his new girlfriend, 400 criminals are dead – the world starts worshipping this new vigilante.
You must forgive the unusually long plot description, but I’m afraid before we discuss the film, you need to be absolutely clear about its set-up, which on paper sounds like something Richard Matheson or Charlie Brooker might cook up on a particularly grim evening. But it’s more or less the same as that of its source material – the Japanese manga series which spawned several films, anime series, and a bunch of merch. That’s just how the Japanese roll.
The American, Netflix-produced Death Note could be about many things, though. Most obviously, it could be a film about karma, about how every act has consequences, and how, in the wise words of Justin Timberlake, what goes around has the tendency to come around. It could be a Greek tragedy about a boy who defies God – certainly, Light seems to revel in his newfound power – and is struck down for challenging the order of things. It could even be a film about first love, and how you never, ever forget it. Who knows?
Or, it could be the story of how the world’s most successful serial killer was born, and how the strange voices in his head compelled him to commit murder.
It could also be a superhero origin story, in the same way that Chronicle was superhero origin story (it wasn’t, it was more like a supervillain origin story). Adam Wingard has certainly borrowed that film’s breakneck pacing. If anything, it moves too quickly. When it was over, I thought for a moment about everything that had happened, and decided that had it been any other movie, it could’ve easily lasted 30 minutes longer. At an hour-and-a-half, Death Note moves with the efficient pace of a kid late for his final exam.
And as with his previous films – most notably You’re Next and The Guest – Wingard once again flaunts his rare gift. Some modern horror directors – like Jaume Collet Serra and Fede Alvarez – have a Hitchcockian command over atmosphere. Some, like Ti West and Adam Green, know how to work with shoestring budgets. Wingard, however, does tone like nobody else. Death Note is part psychological thriller, part horror movie, part police drama, and part dark comedy – and none of it feels out of place.
Like the best J-horror properties – even though this is hardly a J-horror movie anymore – it lucidly lays out the rules of its world, and lets the characters flounder about in it for our enjoyment.
It’s propelled by a pulsating electronic score by Atticus and Leopold Ross, and a handful of fine performances – once again, special mention must go out to the immensely talented Lakeith Stanfield, who plays the mysterious, hooded detective tracking down the vigilante.
A chronic side-effect of movies based on existing properties is that they usually alienate those outside its immediate fanbase. Not Death Note. It feels like the first in a series you’d want to see.
Watch the Death Note trailer here