Death Note: Sour Note
Written Review by David Carter
There seems to be something happening with director Adam Wingard. He’s trying to make the jump to mainstream movie making from his humble beginnings as mumblecore maker of the macabre, but he’s going through some unfortunate growing pains. Wingard and his writing partner Simon Barrett cut their teeth on making lo-fi horror films (A Horrible Way to Die stands out) in the same style that Joe Swanberg, the Duplass brothers, and Lena Dunham were doing in their malaise-y comedies and dramas. The biggest difference being that there was always a more pop and mainstream aesthetic to Wingard and Barrett’s films. It only makes sense that when their budgets got bigger and the audience expanded that they’d lean into those proclivities a little more. You’re Next and The Guest (and to an extent their short segment in the horror anthology V/H/S) play with all of Wingard and Barrett’s fetishes. Late 70’s and early to mid 80’s flavor (and needle drops), dark humor that plays over the entire film not matter how grim the scenes became, and casts that feel like the roles were tailor made to their exact strengths (my favorite being how director Ti West is cast as a vapid dummy in You’re Next because he can’t even blink convincingly on camera).
However, when they made the jump to the actual mainstream, things began to get lost in the shuffle. Blair Witch, while an interesting experiment in expanding the mythology of a film that largely relied on its atmosphere and performances to create its world (Blair Witch plays like an imagined found footage script written by Mark Frost in 2006), it’s ultimately a failure. None of their trademark aesthetics are there, the attempts at humor largely fall flat and the cast is forgettable. So it was exciting to find out that Wingard (sans Barrett) was tackling a project that seemed like an interesting canvas for his particular brand of horror. A movie about a high school loner given unimaginably deadly power seems ripe for Wingard to do something interesting with the material. Unfortunately, Netflix’s Death Note steps into the same mud piles as this year’s Ghost in the Shell adaptation. While also highlighting the worst tendencies of the director, but with a minor caveat that politics here are murkier and our protagonist this time around feels like a proper reflection and embodiment of a type of person that was given power by the advent of a particular type of internet subculture.
Death Note is the long gestating American adaptation of the Japanese manga and anime of the same name. Our protagonist is Seattle native Light Turner (played by YA actor Nat Wolff). A high schooler who doesn’t seem like he really rolls with any particular crowd. He keeps to himself and runs a side-hustle doing other people’s homework and take home exams for them. It’s our indication that Light’s a smarter than your average boy. He’s also a mope. He gets picked on and pushed around, all the while fawning out of the corner of his eye for the dark sided cheerleader Mia Sutton (The Nice Guys alum Margaret Qualley) who smokes (to no one’s objection) during cheer practice. Things change when a book almost literally falls into his lap. It’s called the Death Note and its purpose is simple: If you write a person’s name in the book with their face in your mind, that person dies. It also comes with a magical friend, a Japanese demon named Ryuk (played by two-time Oscar nominee, the Green Goblin) who’s there to seemingly guide Light with the use of the Death Note but is maybe more adversary than an advisor. With the Death Note and the encouragement of Mia (who sees something she likes in Light) Light gives himself the alias Kira and takes it on himself to become Judge Judy and Executioner of all those he sees as blights on the world. Unfortunately for him, this attracts the attention of the world’s greatest detective simply named “L” (Delightful weirdo and incredible actor Lakeith Stanfield who is far and away the best thing about Death Note). What partially ensues is Heat-esque cat and mouse game (complete with a scene of the two foes meeting in a diner and spouting their codes and philosophies) but in reality, the focus is all about Light’s ideals and his relationship with Mia.
Light’s characterization and his relationship to Mia are some of the few saving graces of a film that stumbles in trying to delivering an intense horror/thriller for an American audience. Like Ghost in the Shell, there’s controversy as to the fact that it’s once again white people portraying characters who were in their conception and cultural touchstones, Japanese. At least this time there’s some effort made to make this American. It’s set in Seattle, literally one of the whitest places on Earth. Yes, the leads are white, but “L” is played by a black man whose the foil to what is a walking embodiment of Reddit dot com. But, those alone aren’t enough to give it a pass due to the negligence of not updating some cultural touchstones, like Ryuk being a Shinigami (death gods in Japanese mythology) instead of whatever the American analog would be. Or the fact that “L’s” man servant is still a Japanese man named Watari and that Japan is so focal to the events early on in the movie. The waters are murkier on this one but full commitment would have been better than the sloppy half measures taken.
I want to touch on the aforementioned aspect of Light’s updated characterization. Full disclosure: I have read and watched the entirety of both the manga and anime. There are unfortunate changes made to have a multi-volume story fit into a 101 minute run time. Like the fact that all of the labyrinthine rules of the Death Note being already written inside its pages as opposed to the slow burn of Light testing the limits of the book and figuring out those rules himself. However, the change of Light being this amazingly intelligent sociopath who presents himself as a Golden Boy to the family and peers in the manga and anime to someone who is a mildly intelligent logic bound, personified “actually” is an interesting change. It makes Light more of antagonist within the context of the film instead of the criminal we have some empathy for in cops and crooks movies. It’s a great reflection of the type of person we would fear getting their hands on a weapon that powerful. A teenager, who through their white-male entitlement and above average intelligence might think they have the world figured out. In the real world (especially modern day America) it’s rarely super intelligent people that tell people their outlook is wrong, it’s the trolls who lurk in Youtube comments. It’s why casting “L” black is a great way to bring out that subtext. An insanely competent person who went through hell and high water to earn what they have is constantly overshadowed by a white dude who got lucky. It’s a smart change on Wingard’s part.
For all the good racial and cultural subtext of Death Note, it doesn’t really work as a piece of fiction. So much is told through montage and Wingard leans way too heavily on his style and personal tastes (this and Spider-Man: Homecoming earn the annoying distinction of having high school dances where the kids in 2017 are way into the 80’s pop music the DJ is spinning instead of, you know, music kids would actually listen to). Hopefully down the line, this property gets a long form adaptation that is faithful to the spirit of the manga but retains the interesting cultural changes that saved this movie from just being another slapped together mess that’s used as a punchline among fans.