Giving Death Note credit and some just desserts.
Coming straight out of a Hot Topic apparel shop from the early 2000s, with only few hints at this being set in modern day, Adam Wingard’s Death Note adaptation for Netflix isn’t so much a fall from grace for teens or young adults to absorb, but a piece of franchise fandom that is more cursory visage than complete vision. The film bothers not with establishing character, motivation or device mechanics, but with growing into shoes a size or so too big, exploring maturity and innocence while itself is struggling to understand its own existence. A running contradiction, self aware throughout. Why wasn’t this a line of mall store t shirts and stickers?
Why make an “American” Death Note? The concept of adapting for our culture is complex and fascinating, as we (and the world) have ever increasing access to information. More so than ever before, and true in more ways than one, the world is melting together. The U.S. isn’t simply white, and can be represented by just about anyone. There are differences in what’s topical, what’s pop and what’s socially acceptable, of course — none of which are explored or cared for, really, in a movie meant for Western interpretation. This new Death Note is more a product of auteur eyes and style than reflection of a given setting. If it wasn’t for Wingard, we’d be throwing this movie on the cynical producers pile.
The frame work of the film gets going immediately, with no hesitation and little introduction. A book falls from a rainy sky, with “Death Note” scrolled across. As a death god with a name not adapted for us appears and explains, this book will control and kill anyone whose name is entered into it. A young loner and meek type with dyed blonde highlights, Light Turner, accepts this tool and, along with his romantic interest Mia, go on a righteous killing spree under the name “Kira”. The more deaths they are responsible for, the more kisses they make, the more “in love” they fall. It explores the concept of physical before mental maturity in much the same way that Battle Royale did — teen love being most dramatic and hormonal — but with the added weight of an upper hand.
Death Note has a self satirical and sometimes meta sarcasm that comes around all the time. This is a little confusing, as Wingard, at least in the films of his I’ve seen, doesn’t normally dabble in such critical platitudes. Aware and fun, yes. Analytical and even deprecating, not so much. The Guest was confident with what it was, presenting the action horror in wink and nod ways. Blair Witch was more straight forward in tone, with trademark clever technique. But in Death Note, there’s a sense of “aint this silly, folks!?” felt in every minute shown. This never takes away from the craft — dutch angle heavy, sure, but has a depth of image and composition reminiscent of Edgar Wright — but it does question the overall motives and brings us back to why it was made at all. Is this where American streaming is at: Media that challenges its audience to determine worth directly? Noise on top of noise. Overt over saturation.
Lakeith Stanfield plays the enigmatic detective L, tasked with catching the mass murderer Light and Mia have created. Almost always in a sugar rush, seemingly fueled by candy, his mind synapses to deduction and conclusion one after another, sometimes in very absurdly funny moments. For example, an ice cream cone is handed to Light’s father, a local detective, when in mid conversation with L. It comes from almost out of frame, suggesting a stage hand or other worldly force offered the treat up. If the movie doesn’t make clear who is to be rooted for, Lakeith does by sheer performance. Anxious ferocity and matter of factness beats moral privilege every time.
This may be what Wingard’s Death Note is getting at. Past the cool and slick 80s soundtrack, past the sense of humor, it all becomes about the haves and have nots. Those who can afford to have the moral pedestal to stand on top of, and those who can’t and never will. A movie where the cat and mouse game is expressed by an African American detective chasing a dyed blonde white punk. It’s all too simple, but works all too well. At one point, Light’s father says “It’s not always so black and white.” Yes and no. Shades of grey exist, sir, but the opposing ends of the spectrum are so very strong.
What a wickedly sinister film this Death Note turned out to be. Never what was expected and yet exactly as we imagined, it’s more focused on the inherent ills than the fascinating themes of its premise. That’s no to say it isn’t thematically rich — if you read within the frames, there are many an insightful characterization and point that is made — but it is confined to its own amusement, much like the death god Ryuk, voiced by Willem Dafoe. From that perspective, Death Note is satisfying. It is satisfying. I just wish I could buy an official laptop sticker. Do malls still exist?
RATING — 3.5 / 5