A book known as Death Note literally falls into the possession of intelligent high school student, Light Turner (Nat Wolff), when it drops out of the sky and lands at his feet. Given to him by a mysterious supernatural figure, Ryuk (Willem Dafoe), the book gives Light the power to kill people. All he needs to do is know their face and write their name within its pages. Deciding to use it to mete out death to heinous criminals, he gives himself the moniker Kira. With the authorities keen to put a stop to him, a highly trained private detective investigates.
The story’s best bits are lost
An adaptation of the manga by Netflix, this US version distills some 108 chapters of story into a feature-length film. While this isn’t unheard of – and it looks like Netflix could have plans to expand the Death Note universe – it does mean that the film misses out some of the narrative strands manga fans might have been hoping to see. This also simplifies proceedings.
Now, that’s not a bad thing in itself – tweaking the story for the screen and a new audience is something that most page-to-screen adaptations do. However, in Death Note, director Adam Wingard – he of You’re Next, V/H/S and 2016’s Blair Witch – truncates things to the point where the story’s most interesting moments are afforded only a passing nod.
Feeling more like the film trying to fit the Final Destination mould than standing alone as its own thing is like punching itself in the gut. It’s easy to see why they went that route – they presumably wanted to appeal to a teen audience that loves that template. But in doing so, they’ve diminished the parts that make the story unique and supremely intriguing.
The scale of the killing and its impact is glossed over. Plus, there’s little emphasis on the individual supporters and cults that spring up worshipping Kira as some kind of god.
Perhaps if the film had been turned into a series we would have seen more of these aspects as the story unfolded, and a more complex plot woven in. And perhaps a closer look at the Kira victims might also have made the story more engaging.
We also don’t get to find out as much about the enigmatic detective on his trail as we’d like. He’s a fascinating character. But Wingard simply teases us with just a glimpse at his backstory and an intriguing relationship with a mentor figure. There’s also that surprising emotional response to an occurrence during the film’s final act. We want to know more.
Light’s cop father is also a very likable character with potentially more to him than we’re allowed to see. And we don’t know nearly enough about the background and motivations of his partner in crime, Mia.
A superhero horror
Death Note has many issues, but there’s much to recommend. It’s a twist on this particular horror subgenre, which sees victims picked off one by one by some inescapable supernatural force, and an interesting take on the kind of vigilantism we’ve become used to seeing on screen.
Death Note is a superhero movie projected through a horror lens, with Light, our hero, dishing out his own brand of justice to bad guys. And just as the powers-that-be want to quash the Avengers and the X-Men, so the authorities want to shut Kira down. This being horror, of course, the outcome and framing of the ‘hero’ are what makes the difference.
And speaking of framing, the film is curiously bookended with a couple of scenes that suggest all we’ve just seen could have been a dream. After Light is knocked unconscious at the start when school bully Kenny punches him, he wakes up on the ground in the rain. There’s also a moment soon after this when he’s in detention and nods off. It’s following this that the supernatural events take place.
At the end of the film, he wakes up in a hospital bed. Suggesting that everything in between could have been a nightmare. Although Light goes on to have a conversation with his dad about what happened, the device is there to cast doubt and offer an explanation for those that want to read it that way. It also explains why he didn’t get in trouble for trashing the detention room.
Though this approach is often lambasted, it works pretty well here: it’s only ever implicit and adds another layer to an otherwise standard horror.
It’s funny, with a memorable antagonist
What we haven’t got to yet is Ryuk. He’s an inventively realised horror villain, with a mean streak and wicked sense of humour. He looks terrifying, all black spikes, red eyes and fearsome fangs – with devilish smirk to boot.
And he loves to toy with Light, cackling through every move Light orchestrates – in a game of his own making in which he’s always one step ahead. He’s an appealingly textbook recurring horror antagonist, and you’ll look forward to seeing him again in a sequel or several. Oh, and casting Willem Dafoe in the role is a stroke of genius – he brings bags of charisma and is source of most of the film’s humour.
Yep, the film doesn’t shy away from humour. A subtle tongue-in-cheek approach, shared by Final Destination and the recent Wish Upon, creates genuinely funny moments. There’s Light’s girly screaming and amusing use of music as well as Ryuk’s quips and menacing playfulness.
Is Death Note any good?
As an introduction to a franchise, Death Note is problematic. Any feature film needs to stand alone and work as a self-contained story. It needs to find an audience, and in the case of Death Note, needs to appeal to both existing fans of the property and newcomers.
But in trying to make Death Note a new Final Destination, Adam Wingard has hit the wrong note. Instead, he should have focused more on the things that set the story apart.
Death Note is better than some entries in this horror subgenre but it fails to do justice to the manga story – and that leaves a bitter taste of disappointment.