Death Note is a bit of horror fun.
But only a bit.
Weeeeeell, I did it again. Missed posting last night’s writeup. I posted it as soon as I remembered this morning.
But today I watched Death Note, the Netflix western adaptation of the popular manga series of the same name. Now, I don’t read manga at all, so I’ve got no oar in how faithful the adaptation is. As far as I’m concerned, it’s this one movie. I’m sure OG Death Note fans will have plenty to say anyway.
In Death Note, Light Turner (Nat Wolff) is a high school student who’s clearly a smart guy. He sells the answers to exams to fellow students. He also has a real thorn in his side about injustice — he stops a pack of bullies from beating up a nerd and an attractive cheerleader. This all traces back to his mother, who was killed by a drunk driver who got off scot-free.
Light is given a book marked “Death Note” by a death god called Ryuk (voiced by Willem Dafoe, of course). Light can cause the death of anyone he wants by picturing their face, then writing their name in the book along with their means of death. He tests this out on a bully — the bully is swiftly decapitated in a freak accident. The book works.
He then causes the death of the man who killed his mother, whose death morbidly satisfies Light’s detective father (Shea Whigham). Light then shares the book with Mia (Margaret Qualley), the cheerleader he saved. Together they start ridding the world of criminals, and forcing the criminals to write the name “Kira” before they die.
Hot on their trail is L (Lakeith Stanfield), a master detective who quickly suspects Light. Will Mia and Light stay in control of the remarkable power they’ve been given, and will L and Light’s father ever discover the truth?
While the overall idea of Death Note is really cool and interesting, I found the actual characterisations to be lackluster. The main character, Light, is a bit of a wet blanket. He seems unaffected by the book psychologically — we learn that he’s killed more than 400 people in his time as Kira, but that doesn’t have an impact on him in any kind of way. In fact, the idea of whether that’s a good or bad thing is only casually mentioned in one scene.
Does the consequences of his actions weigh heavily on his conscience? Does it take a toll on him? Does he go mad with power? Does he ever question what he’s doing? Do we question what he’s doing? No, not really. In fact for a guy who has killed 400 people, the movie does a damn good job of painting him as the victim. There’s a great opportunity here to explore what happens to a person when they’re given the power of life and death over others, and it never really is.
L is a character of forced affectations. His name’s L, he wears a mask over his face, he wears no shoes, he eats candy, he has odd sleep patterns, he perches on seats, he speaks in stilted genius-level cadence and has an assistant who enjoys ice cream and tells him when to sleep. All together it makes for an interesting package, but the actor never comes across as particularly convinced of those affectations. He’s like a young high school kid trying to find his “thing”, wearing zany sunglasses or boat shoes but never quite pulling it off. I like his character more when he drops all of the tics towards the end of the film.
The darker side of Death Note is explored a bit more through Mia, who goes a touch mad with power. But only a touch. Again, it’s an opportunity squandered. Her obsession comes through in dribs and drabs.
On the plus side, I really loved both the look and the performance of Ryuk, the death demon. There’s a guy called Jason Lies in the suit, and Dafoe does the voice and CGI facial capture. It’s very Dafoe, and that’s a good thing.
It also has a cool score. Kind of hammer horror combined with that more “2010 version of the 1980s” synth style that’s all the rage these days. It makes for a unique tone. And the look and direction of the film oozes style.
The kills are nice and gruesome. Netflix allows even movies roughly aimed at teens to have some good old fashioned blood and gore, which is fantastic. The real trouble is that aside from a bit of style and gore, it feels like all the things I didn’t like are the things that were likely added through the adaptation.