“Shall we begin?”
Adam Wingard’s adaptation of Death Note is yet another instance of whitewashing Japanese source material, like the Ghost in the Shell adaptation that came out earlier this year, but this Americanized reworking of Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata’s manga series more closely resembles Spike Lee’s Oldboy than the former Scarlett Johansson vehicle. Excluding the change of city and the two leads’ ethnicities, little else is different about Death Note, except for the method of killings, which are realized in the Rube-Goldberg mechanizations of the Final Destination series. The original series featured heart attacks, but Wingard decides to take a gorehound’s approach to create something more cinematic than watching people clutch their chests.
The mayhem starts when Light Turner (Nat Wolf) finds a notebook created by the God of Death, Ryuk (voiced by Willem Dafoe), that allows him to kill anyone simply by jotting down their name. Left sore from a beating that he received earlier from a bully, Light decides to test his new abilities out, leaving Light’s bully decapitated and Ryuk very pleased. Quickly, dispatching with low-level criminals on the eleven o’clock news bores Light. So he starts getting more ambitious with his victims, eventually reaching despots around the globe. Which draws investigations from Light’s father, Detective Turner (Shea Whigham), and the mercurial L (Keith Stanfield).
With so much fanfare associated with these killings, Light begins attributing the murders to Kira, a global power that can act anywhere, designed to prevent crime by scaring the people committing crimes. Minority Report ala Dexter. Such a decision leaves Wingard and writers Charles and Vlas Parlapanides and Jeremy Slater in the unenviable position of whitewashing the material further or attributing a young, white loner’s violence to a scapegoat. Setting Death Note in the U.S. could have been a platform to more closely explore the violence unique to the U.S., but those opportunities went wasted. One particular scene between Light and L in an alley way would have been rife with political meaning, but the script cops out to avoid saying much of anything at all.
There seems to be a mix-up of sorts for what this Death Note is trying to be. Adam Wingard (The Blair Witch, The Guest) handles the horror aspects of the film well, maintaining the visual tone of the genre before he dabbles in the grounded real-world aspects of the violence Light inflicts. The best moments of Death Note resemble the character work that Wingard did in The Guest, quietly settling on the throes of love set to 80s music before violence bursts out. The cohesiveness of acting ensemble is a different matter. Nat Wolff delivers his lines with the seriousness of a serial killer reciting his latest manifesto. Meanwhile, LaKeith Stanfield goes full pineapple-glazed ham. Casting Willem Dafoe, an actor known for reveling in maniacal glee, as Ryuk was a stroke of genius.
If Light has a concern with the collateral damage he causes, it doesn’t seem to bother him. His own mother was taken from him by a senseless hit-and-run by a local gangster. It is clear from Wingard’s direction that Light isn’t mistaken for a psychopath (as Light is in the manga novels), but if Light and his girlfriend, Mia Sutton (Margaret Qualley), are supposed to appear concerned with moral repercussions, they just seem concerned with saving their asses. Especially once L starts hunting for Kira in Seattle.
Consolidating so much of Death Note’s varied productions into a single film was always going to be difficult. 100 minutes would be sufficient to chronicle two mass murdering lovers realizing their bubble can’t last, but adding L into the mix changes the complexion of the film for the worse. Stanfield’s performance is fun, though his investigation could have been added to a later sequel. Ryuk’s presence would be enough to act as antagonist for Light and Mia, and it did before the film starts laying the groundwork for a multi-film franchise. It appears that Netflix wants in on the sequel game as well, even at the cost of letting the first film succeed.