The anime Death Note is one of the most thrilling, shocking television series that has ever been released. With its densely layered plot, complex characters it leaves an impact unlike most television nowadays. Now we have a 2017 American adaptation that does manage to capture some of the themes and complexities of the characters. While it comes up short compared to the anime, the film manages to be fascinating, and grips you from the start.
Light Turner (Nat Wolff) is a smart kid in Seattle, Washington who is constantly being bullied at school. One day while minding his own business, he comes across a ledger called a Death Note. A mystical demon named Ryuk (Willam Defoe) tells him that he can write a name, imagine them, they’ll die. Now with a sense of power, Light starts to kill criminals which catches the attention of the authorities and a master detective only known as L (Keith Stanfield).
This only covers the surface of the story. I think of this as a bit of a cliff notes version, but it is a damn good one. The performances are all spot on, especially Stanfield as L. He manages to bring an eccentricity to the character that actually comes off as endearing instead of off putting. He has a vulnerability that counterbalances his seemingly supernatural ability to keep up with Light. Wolff as Light had the embodiment of righteousness down, but due to cultural differences with Japan, he comes off as more of a victim than a lauded student. It works well for this version, and gives the film its own sense of identity.
Unlike this year’s Ghost in the Shell, director Adam Wingard (You’re Next) has a clear love for the material. Subtle nods and ingenious explanations for using elements that were clearly Japanese but moving them over to America which somehow managed to work. The film doesn’t shy away from the horror elements of the material, and along with the music, has a distinctive 1980s vibe that took me by surprise on how well that worked.
While in the grand scheme of things I do prefer the series over the film, that version shook me up pretty bad with its twists, the film exists as its own beast and exists as further evidence that apparently Netflix is where you’ll get some thrilling, just damn good movies. Few movies this year left an impact on me, but this one sure did, and I hope everyone sees this movie, and then check out the series.
Note: I chose not to dive into the whitewashing controversy because I wanted to focus the films on its own merits and its source material only.