Saturday, October 28, 2017

31 Days of Horror: Death Note

Directed by Adam Wingard.
2017. Rated R, 100 minutes.
Nat Wolff
Margaret Qualley
Lakeith Stanfield
Willem Dafoe
Shea Whigham
Paul Nakauchi

Light Turner (Wolff), a candidate for The Allegorical Name Hall of Fame, is the proverbial ninety-eight-pound weakling. We meet him as he tries to stand up for a girl who is being bullied by an uber-macho jerk. The 2017 Netflix version of Light getting sand kicked in his face ensues. Since our hero is trying to financially capitalize on that big brain of his, it's discovered that he was carrying a book bag full of papers he wrote for other students and he gets in more trouble than the bully and has to go to detention. In the midst of all this, Light comes across a book titled Death Note. While in detention, he gets a visit from the death god Ryuk (Dafoe) who lets him know he can cause the immediate death of any person he wanted, in any manner he wanted, simply by writing their name in the book. Of course, our not-so-friendly neighborhood bully is first. Light writes the guy's name and the word 'decapitation' next to it. Sure enough, we're treated to his Final Destination inspired be-heading. Since Light has clearly seen a superhero movie or two, he vows to use his power for good and only kill criminals. But like Spider-Man has taught us, there's always a girl. Not surprisingly, that girl is Mia (Qualley), the same girl Light tried to save at the beginning. Because us dudes are powerless in the face of a woman we want to take to our Batcave, he spills the beans about the book. Turns out Mia is intoxicated by this power and things start to spiral out of control. Before you know it, the authorities are trying to figure out why bad guys are suddenly dropping dead all over the world. The investigation is headed up by the mysterious L. (Stanfield). The balance of the film sees Light trying to navigate this situation. This is (loosely) based on a Japanese manga of the same name.

The situation turns out to be a trio of wonderfully realized cat and mouse games. Their effectiveness lies in the movie's ability to keep the character's a mystery to each other. In some cases, this mystery is based on the concealing of identities. Other times, it's hiding intentions. This keeps the viewer guessing how things will play out despite the fact that very little of either is actually kept from us. It's just presented in such a way we understand that not only are the characters on the screen grasping at straws, but that they should be. We have loads of fun watching them trying to get a handle on things only to have them switch when they think they finally do. This blends with the more horror-like elements of the story, which spring up periodically, to make an intriguing mix driven much more by its characterizations than its body count.

The cast makes it an easy call to go that route as they give us some wonderful performances. Nat Wolff gives us a nigh perfect zero to hero transformation. This leads to him questioning everyone, himself included. He wonders if he is really the hero. More importantly, for him, he has to deal with a bevy of villains. Wolff draws us into his predicament which grounds the film as lots of other fantastical things swirl around. However, he's far from alone. Margaret Qualley embodies her character's growing obsession with the book. She is clearly intrigued by it from the beginning and Qualley runs with this trait. Lakeith Stanfield gives what is bound to be the film's most underrated performance, and one that's possibly the best of his still-young career. He steps further away from type than any of his castmates to give us a quirky, reclusive investigator forced out of his comfort zone and into action by the circumstances he faces.

All of those actors are overshadowed, with good reason. Willem Dafoe's Ryuk is the film's towering presence. The costume is actually donned by Jason Liles. Dafoe did some motion-capture work to give the character facial expressions. Mostly, he just puts that voice to marvelous use. It's simultaneously gravely, menacing, and darkly funny. The combination adds tons of gravitas to Ryuk's persona. and hangs over every moment of the film. Dafoe makes this his film even though he probably has less screen time than any of the other major characters.

None of those other elements would matter one bit, if the film couldn't resolve itself in a satisfactory manner. Thankfully, it does. This is impressive because until the very end the script throws more and more balls into the air for director Adam Wingard to juggle. He deftly handles it all, maneuvering through what could easily have been a muddled finale. Instead, Wingard presents it with clarity preserving the awe the script was meant to inspire.

Clearly, I loved watching Death Note, but it's worth noting I was not at all familiar with the source material. To me, this is all a welcome breath of fresh air combining fantasy, horror, mystery, and dark comedy. The labyrinthine plot is shockingly easy to follow, even as goes down multiple rabbit holes, yet still challenges us. We question our own notions of right and wrong by wondering what we would do if were in possession of the eponymous book. However, it seems this one has been fanboyed. Most of the criticisms I've come across stem from the fact it took lots of liberties and apparently differs greatly from the manga its based on. There are also charges of whitewashing, or at the very least, Americanizing. These are fair. Even Wingard admits as much, saying he was trying to make the film and its themes more tangible for an American audience. As for the product he created, all I can say is that I feel the movie stands on its own merit and succeeds at what it's trying to do.


  1. I made it about 15 minutes into this movie before my niece got angry and turned it off because she's a big fan of the anime. Apparently it does a poor job of living up to it. lol. I do like Lakeith Stanfield a lot and was looking forward to seeing more of him. I added the anime to my Netflix queue, I'll give both a shot eventually.

    1. I've heard that, but having no idea of the anime beforehand, it didn't bother me one way or another. Hope you give it a chance.

  2. If you've read my review on this one you'll know I loathed it, so I'm surprised to see you enjoyed it so much! The film felt like a cliff-notes version of a much larger, better story, content to just rip the best bits out of the anime (which I've not seen) and the characters felt weak and indifferent. The concept itself is interesting and open to a multitude of possible moral and ethical debates and discussion, but the film never event attempted to explore a single one other than briefly at the beginning - is it okay to kill somebody without consequence? - and I think my dislike for Death Note stems from unrealised potential more than anything.

    1. Very fair points. The inventive way the story was told worked for me. I agree there was certainly the potential for more. I haven't read your review, but I will do so tonight.