Adam Wingard’s American adaptation of the wildly popular Manga comes to Netflix.
Bright but bullied Light Turner (Nat Wolff) comes across a mysterious notebook, entitled Death Note. The book gives him the power to kill any human being as long as he knows their name and face. But the book doesn’t come on its own; it’s looked after by a death demon called Ryuk (Willem Defoe, perfectly cast). As Light realises the power he now wields, he embarks on a killing spree, but only of criminals. This gets the attention of law enforcement, and genius investigator L (Lakeith Stanfield) is brought in to track down the mysterious and seemingly omnipotent killer.
It’s a hell of an idea; a book that can give its owner the power to kill anyone. It’s packed with thematic potential which the film does have a chance to explore. Central to the film is the idea of morality, and whether it’s ever right to kill someone, no matter what they’ve done. Is it justice? Religion is also touched on as Light’s killer pseudonym Kira becomes seen as a God. It’s a shame that they can’t be more deeply explored as the cat and mouse game between L and Light pushes the plot along.
Death Note does feel like it’s a chance for Wingard to set himself loose, and the cinematography and camerawork is definitely showing off, especially after the rigorous confines of the found footage structure that made up his disappointing Blair Witch sequel. You can feel his fingerprints on it through the pumping electronic score reminiscent of The Guest and the blood splattering gore akin to You’re Next. He also feels like a director who’s evolving. He’s working on a bigger canvas than previously and for the most part handles it.
Where he falls down is in trying to wrangle a multi book property into a manageable film, and bringing a Manga into a real world setting. Both the characters of Light and L feel like they’ve come in from somewhere else, especially when pushed up against the serious acting of Shea Whigham as Light’s dad, James. Light is often shrill (not at Chris Tucker in The Fifth Element levels, but you don’t want to hear him screaming for very long) and L speeds along on a constant sugar high and has difficulty using chairs properly. Margret Qualley’s Mia Sutton is even more difficult to come to terms with. She gets more to do than just being ‘the girlfriend’ but her switching between genuine love for Light and an intoxication by the book leaves her with unresolved characterisation.
The rules of the Death Note also cause problems. We’re told there’s over ninety, and gladly we don’t hear them all, but when they start playing major roles in the plot towards the end, it’s confusing what is a rule and what isn’t, as some seem to be overridden just for the service of the story.
However, Death Note is rarely anything less than entertaining and compelling and its hour and forty minute running time doesn’t drag. It manages to pack in more ideas than most movies of this type, even if it can’t fully commit to exploring them.
It’s probably not going to win over the Manga faithful, but Death Note is entertaining fun despite its failings.
DEATH NOTE / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: ADAM WINGARD / SCREENPLAY: CHARLES PARLAPANIDES, VLAS PARLAPANIDES, JEREMY SLATER / STARRING: NAT WOLFF, MARGRET QUALLEY, WILLEM DEFOE, LAKEITH STANFIELD, SHEA WHIGHAM / RELEASE DATE: 25TH AUGUST