Death Note (U.S., 2017)

Directed by Adam Wingard

Written Charles & Vlas Parlapanides and Jeremy Slater

Starring Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield, Margaret Qually, Paul Nakauchi and Willem Dafoe

“You humans are so fascinating…” *chuckle* – Willem Dafoe as Ryuk

** DISCLAIMER: I come into the American remake of Death Note flying completely blind. I have no exposure to the popular Manga, anime or 2006 film outside of how cool Ryuk looks. Please take this into account when perusing my opinions on this film.**

What would you do if you had the power to play God? To decide who lives and who dies? If you had the power to snuff out the flame of life in the blink of an eye? Would absolute power absolutely corrupt? Especially if said power came from the gnarled hands of a spiny, apple loving Shinigami Death God? These are the questions the Death Note franchise has asked for over a decade. From across the Pacific, we are gifted an intriguing and fascinating concept, ripe for analogy, analysis and fantastic storylines. How then, does this translate for U.S. streaming audiences?

Our Americanized remake comes courtesy of horror maven, Adam Wingard, he of You’re Next, Blair Witch and VHS fame (soon to join fellow horror director Michael Dougherty in the burgeoning Legendary film’s kaiju MonsterVerse). Wingard is obviously a genre fan and seems to tick most of the boxes of what one would expect from a remake (emphasis on most, details to follow). In transplanting the film from Japan to the Pacific Northwest, his eye effectively conveys a rainswept, moody and gloomy aesthetic punctuated by odd neon embellishments. The film looks great, simply put and is a highlight.

Beyond this, the enigmatic villain/mascot of the series, the demon Ryuk is portrayed via snarling menace by born bad guy, Willem Dafoe. His voice is a perfect pick and the idea to keep him shrouded in shadow is a fine choice (especially considering his design is well note, mostly faithfully translated here, negating the need for a big epic reveal). Ryuk is a charismatic and fun villain even if he is kept mostly to the backseat of the proceedings.

The rest of the cast is solid, even if the film apparently takes liberties with the characterization of protagonist, Light. Big props to Lakeith Stanfield (Snoop in Straight Outta Compton) for his portrayal of unhinged, focused and determined detective L. His character quirks are a highlight and one has to wonder if he trained his quad muscles for those awkward perch positions he often takes.

Furthermore we have great gore effects with the kills that seem to take a que from Final Destination. There aren’t a lot but when people die in this film, they explode into gory chunks of viscera. Well done from the effects team.

Onto the elephant: the adaptation. Being a general stranger to the franchise, I can’t speak from experience but brief research has turned up considerable changes mostly in characterization. I’m unqualified to truly comment on them in regards to my view on the film, but the film has earned backlash from fans. Please take this into account when reviewing my score. Outside of the die hard fan spectrum my main complaint is that the film doesn’t really do all it can with the premise. Granted, this is condensing an epic manga story into a 100 minute film, so liberties had to be taken. I appreciate the cat-mouse standoff between Light, his girlfriend (apparently one of the more egregious character alterations) and the enigmatic L. It’s a neat dynamic. But the moral and ethical implications of deciding who dies and who lives goes mostly unexplored. Ditto for Ryuk too; while he looks and sounds creepy, we simply don’t learn enough about him. Suffice to say, the filmmakers may have bit off more than they could chew in adapting such a storied franchise into a single film.

As a stranger to the franchise, I enjoyed it more than most likely will. I had no emotional or fandom attachment to Light, L or Ryuk and essentially viewed them with fresh eyes. I enjoyed the aesthetics, the gore effects and the performances from Dafoe and Stanfield. If you’re a fan, however, odds are you’ve already seen this film and made your own decision. By all means, please develop your own opinion but know that if you go into this flying blind as I have, you’ll likely enjoy it more than viewing it through fan coated glasses.

**Death Note is currently streaming exclusively on Netflix as of September, 2017**

3/5 demon munched apples

Splatter Factor: 3/5  *** There aren’t many kills but when someone dies in Death Note, it creates a mess. The Final Destination style kills involve a body split in half by a car, a head chopped in half by a ladder, a body splattering on the ground from a high fall and general blood splatters. Quality over quantity for sure **

The Collective speaks:

We haven’t met Ryuk. Those of the Yokai and Shinigami persuasion tend to beat their own drum across the Pacific and we have yet to make his acquaintance. But we like his style. Although he has only semi successfully translated his exploits in America, we enjoy the mental and moral head games he seems to employ. Perhaps next time, we can hang out in a rain swept alley and share a basket of apples, trading stories on souls corrupted and darkness unleashed. Sounds like a joyous occasion to us. 

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