15 – 100mins – 2017
“I have a Death God.”
Following his Hollywood breakthrough with 2011’s superb horror hit You’re Next, young auteur Adam Wingard established himself as a compelling new voice of the grisly genre. His credentials were further strengthened as a proponent of anthology pieces such as V/H/S (although he had no hand in the god-awful threequel, reviewed HERE) and The ABCs of Death, while 2014’s The Guest showed there was more to his talent than merely scarlet sauce, shrieks and scares.
Fame followed, and with it – as is the predictable way – the keys to some big Hollywood properties. Sadly, last year’s Blair Witch reboot (reviewed HERE) was more re-tread than reinvention, while Wingard’s latest directorial effort – this Netflix-supported adaptation of Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata’s Japanese Manga – has received mixed reactions (and that’s putting it kindly), particularly from the franchise’s overzealous fanbase.
I will preface this critique by stating that I have never read the serialised 2003-06 source material, so my views are solely based on my reaction to a first viewing of Wingard’s Americanised feature film. Cutting straight to the quick: I sorely wanted to like it far more than I actually did. Wingard certainly has a strong directorial eye and I would never accuse Death Note of being pedestrian, but the whole project felt laboured and uncomfortable to me.
From the perpetually gloomy and oppressive colour palette, via the off-kilter motion-captured CGI of Willem The Great Wall Dafoe’s demonic counter-conscience Ryuk, to the awkwardness of high school protagonist Light Turner (Nat Grandma Wolff), the film felt… off-key. In a story dealing with a teen granted the power to kill, there are a number of jaw-droppingly gruesome take-out sequences, but everything else felt haphazardly cobbled around the shocks.
Backtracking a step to deliver some context, the titular Death Note is a supernatural notebook Light comes across which grants him the power to cause the death of anyone he writes within its pages – provided he knows both the victim’s name and face. Initially, Light uses his new-found macabre magic power to pick off those who have wronged him (bullies, the criminal who mowed down his mother). However, Light is soon convinced by pretty classmate and girlfriend-to-be Mia (Margaret Qualley) to forgo personal vengeance in favour of ridding the world of evil; using the internet to pinpoint evil and eradicate it, under the guise of the god “Kira”.
I thought it was admirable how the story very quickly progressed from a very small and insular two-man operation into a worldwide drama with a dark and sometimes skewed moral message. The police, for instance, are keen to track down the originator of the “Kira” craze, even though – from a black and white perspective – it is doing their job for them. Enter quirky and enigmatic detective “L” (Lakeith Miles Ahead Stanfield) whose contacts and supreme intelligence speed the story along in an unexpected direction. Problematically, however, “L” is too kooky, arrogant and unhinged to connect with the audience. He feels less like a real character and more like a handy plot device and I never once hoped he would succeed in his quest.
Soundtracked by a left-field pop cover, the finale failed to feel conclusive enough to provide the film with a feeling of satisfaction. Light and Mia have been through a harrowing, destiny-altering ordeal, leaving one of them recovering in a hospital bed. What feels like midway through a conversation Light has with his until-recently-scuppered police officer father (Shea Whigham), the credits start rolling on a flippant, throwaway gag from Ryak.
Sure, it leaves the film tantalisingly open for sequels, but it did not feel like a satisfying way to tie up a 90+ minute viewing experience. I was hoping for some sort of grand, philosophic epiphany in light of the climatic ferris wheel collapse. Instead we get a quip and a shrug as if Wingard ran out of ideas and just thought “quick, roll the credits!” There are moments of wit, intelligence and horrific beauty in Death Note, but this scrappy adaptation hits one too many bum notes in my book.
CR@B’s Claw Score: