The first in a series of huge budgetary step-ups for cult horror director Adam Wingard (the next of which will see him tackling mega blockbuster Godzilla vs Kong in 2020), Death Note has already proven controversial for a whole range of reasons.
First off, it’s an American-made remake of a much-loved Japanese manga/anime series (and we all know just how well those go down). And almost as importantly, the whole thing’s backed by supposed cinema-killing giants Netflix. Shepherding his own vision through the no doubt endless amounts of obstacles that awaited him must’ve proven tough on Wingard, and sadly it does show in the finished film.
A somewhat stripped back adaptation of the world-renowned manga, Wingard’s take on Death Note sees Seattle-born Light (Nat Wolff) gifted with the power to kill absolutely any one of his choosing, proving he knows their name and can picture their face. Elevated to the level of an almost underground god, he soon finds the authorities on his tail, including unconventionally trained super detective L (Lakeith Stanfield); a shadowy Sherlock Holmes-style figure who’ll stop at nothing to bring Light’s reign of death to an end.
It’s a pretty heavy world to pull together in just two short hours (hence why previous efforts have always been series), especially considering the above barely scrapes the surface of what Death Note eventually proves to be. And sadly this is where Wingard’s adaptation suffers most. There’s so much rich detail and careful planning put into not just every beat of the story but his visuals too. It’s a very different, very American take on the source material that pits things as more of a Carpenter-esque Final Destination with extra steps, and it totally works. We just don’t get to spend nearly as much time with it as we need.
There’s so much breadth to even just the underlying background mechanics of Death Note (the rules of the titular notebook could be a film in itself) that in order to cram it all in, everything ends up whipping past at a totally breakneck pace. Seriously complex conversations are boiled down to the bare minimum, huge moments in the characters’ developments are montaged through; it permanently feels like Wingard’s running out of time, and it has an really frustrating effect on the whole movie.
Wolff’s Light is far from your normal teenage hero, his girlfriend Mia (Margaret Qualley) even less so, and don’t even get me started on Stanfield’s brilliantly bouncy L. With characters this well-built and set-pieces as fantastic as the extreme Point Break-esque foot-chase that lights up the third act, Death Note is begging for more time to show off just how bonkers and deep it can get. Instead what’s left feels like a movie stuck on fast-forward; the abridged cliff notes to something much, much more extraordinary.
Death Note was screened as part of Horror Channel FrightFest 2017 and is available to stream on Netflix now.