THE DEATH NOTE saga is a phenomenon in Japan. Debuting in 2003, the manga serial scored Stephen King-level sales, which led to an animated series and a run of live-action movies. In Western horror terms, it’s a crossover success akin to Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter properties rather than the likes of, say, the Final
Destination franchise. There have been Death Note computer games, stage musicals and novelty notebooks with which to curse your enemies. While comparable J-hits such as Ring and
The Grudge were easily retooled into English- language versions, an American Death Note has been in development hell for a decade and now only emerges after a significant pre-production wobble. Director Adam Wingard (You’re Next,
Blair Witch ) was due to make a theatrical Death Note feature for Warner Bros. but the studio put the project into turnaround — only for Netflix to come to the rescue. In the event, it’s a shame Netflix didn’t get on board earlier, for the complicated, satisfyingly nuanced saga would make more sense as an episodic show along the lines of Stranger Things than a standalone feature. If you’re new to this world, Wingard’s
Death Note has a lot going for it but long-time Death-notees will regret the loss of great swathes of plot (along with a bunch of vivid secondary characters) and the simplification not only of the story but of the morality.
The hump the film gets over successfully is the complicated, far-fetched cartoon conceit. There are pages of densely written rules about how the death curse works — Wingard adds a delicious, savvy touch about the way no-one ever reads terms and conditions, even when their lives (or souls) are at stake. Then there’s the Japanese death god who becomes the teen protagonist’s invisible best friend — a potentially ludicrous effect successfully realised with less cartoonish CGI than in the Japanese films and a terrific voice performance from Willem Dafoe, who delivers the perfect mix of friendly malice and sinister unctuousness. Leading man Nat Wolff, although credible as a smart school outcast, struggles with the arc of Light, who goes from aggrieved local vigilante to a globally famous figure of terror (adopting the name ‘Kira’) as his campaign to slay untouchable evildoers gets underway. His position is complicated because his own father (Whigham) is the honest cop in charge of the case, and the teenage supersleuth L (Stanfield) called in to catch the uncatchable murderer realises Kira must be linked to the Seattle police department.
The plot hinges on a battle between the supernaturally aided Light and emo Sherlock Holmes L, but both are upstaged by Mia (Quilley), Light’s girlfriend and co-conspirator. She dominates the latter stages as she decides she knows better and sets out to win the death god over to her side. Inevitably, a lot more story is set in motion than can be resolved, but there’s so much great stuff here you hope there’ll be follow-ups to explore the rest.
The Seattle police had opted for radical new uniforms.