Death Note 2017
Light Turner, a bright student who stumbles across a mystical notebook that has the power to kill any person whose name he writes in it. Light decides to launch a secret crusade to rid the streets of criminals. Soon, the student-turned-vigilante finds himself pursued by a famous detective known only by the alias L.
August 25, 2017
Charley Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides, and Jeremy Slater
Lakeith Stanfield, Willem Dafoe, Margaret Qualley, and Nat Wolff
American filmmaker Adam Wingard (along with writers Charley Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides, and Jeremy Slater) has turned the best-selling Japanese manga/franchise Death Note (created by Tsugumi Ôba and Takeshi Obata) into a remake that respects its source while becoming an entirely new beast. Those familiar with the Death Note phenomenon know that it’s already been adapted into an extensive anime with three live-action feature films, so there was plenty of franchise potential in an American remake. But instead of setting up a sequel by ending on a cliffhanger that would leave fans salivating for more, Wingard and team blew their entire creative load in a single 100-minute tour-de-force. I suppose there’s a chance they could make a sequel (Wingard wisely left some questions unanswered for the sake of dramatic impact) but this film reveals everything the Japanese manga/anime/films have spent (literally) a decade unraveling. If the American Death Note becomes a franchise, it will be venturing into completely unique territory—meaning it wouldn’t be canonical Death Note (so what’s the point?).
Official Synopsis: Light Turner, a bright student who stumbles across a mystical notebook that has the power to kill any person whose name he writes in it. Light decides to launch a secret crusade to rid the streets of criminals. Soon, the student-turned-vigilante finds himself pursued by a famous detective known only by the alias L.
A potential downside of cramming an entire Japanese franchise into a single film is that some may suffer sensory overload—especially those unfamiliar with the existing mythologies. Light discovers the supernatural notebook, begins using it, and becomes a worldwide demigod in 26 minutes. By contrast, the anime took many episodes and hours getting to this point; we see character’s struggling with the implications of power and ethical issues, transitioning from disbelief to awe and finally mania. Without character development and the portrayal of inner struggles, it can seem both unbelievable and unrealistic. Of course, no one will watch Death Note looking for realism; it’s clearly a work of fantastic fiction. It’s just that the Japanese Death Note takes viewers/readers on a much more nuanced ride (obviously).
Related Article: All Horror Movies & Thrillers Coming to Netflix September 2017
Those hoping for a strict adaptation will be vastly disappointed, but this is usually the case when a film has source material (like a novel or manga). Still, it doesn’t butcher the core mythologies like 2015’s live-action Attack on Titan films did. The differences serve a more conclusive story arch, as well as tropes American audiences are more familiar with. Light Yagami of manga is a genius, but also a popular high school student who drives a nice car and attracts all the pretty ladies. Wingard’s Light Turner (played by Nat Wolff) is a nerd. This fits better with pre-established underdog-drunk-on-power motifs American and Western audiences understand and can relate too. Light Turner finds himself drunk on power to be certain, but this is a much more sympathetic character than Yagami—a good guy who realizes the error of his ways as opposed to an egomaniacal and morally ambiguous vigilante.
Likewise, the super-detective L (played by Lakeith Stanfield) is reminiscent of but very different than, the L. of manga. While both are uber-geniuses with an insatiable sweet-tooth, American L is unstable and erratic. His Japanese counterpart never lost his cool, but this L becomes completely unhinged. Ultimately, L is seen as more antagonistic that Light/Kira: A mad Sherlock Holmes whose brain was broken by his personal Professor Moriarty. We certainly don’t like him as much as manga L, seeing him as an obstacle to Light Turner’s attempts to make amends; an obsessed problem solver who loses sight of justice when the “game” becomes a one-on-one battle of wits.
The Shinigami/Death God Ryuk is a Death Note fan favorite, and like the films & manga this movie is based on, he’s a consummate scene stealer. Willem Dafoe’s voice is perfectly madcap and unnerving for this sinister sidekick. Like everything else in Wingard’s adaptations, there are aspects of American Ryuk that are very unique. In the manga, the Shinigami is chaotic neutral; he takes pleasure in mayhem and encourages the Death Note’s keeper to indulge in its powers, but doesn’t have designs beyond his established station; no hidden agendas with this guy. Not so with Dafoe’s Death God, who’s a straight-up schemer, purposely keeping Turner in the dark on important “rules” while plotting a personal coup—one that will see the supernatural notebook reassigned to a more depraved keeper.
While the manga had mind-bogglingly deep subtext, American Death Note never gets more complex than “Karma’s a bitch”, which is probably a good thing. There are cultural aspects of the Japanese source material that simply wouldn’t have translated well, so keeping the themes and subtext focused was a smart directorial move. Horror fans will love a shout-out to Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm, but this is hardly a horror movie in the strictest sense. This one is just as likely to appeal to fans of The Evil Dead as fans of Rogue One. It’s a great fantasy set in the framework of a high school mope-fest that would make John Hughes blush—and yes, I mean that as a compliment.
Related Article: All Horror Movies Being Released in September 2017
Bottom Line: Adam Wingard is a legend in indie horror, but Death Note is a great mainstream crowd-pleaser. As someone familiar with the mythology, I was impressed by both the director’s respect for the source material and his innovations, which felt appropriate for its target audience without undermining important themes or messages. No need for a sequel, as this one is packed to the gills with a conclusion that’s poignant and satisfying. Netflix has indeed delivered a theatrical quality, original film that may well become a cult classic.