DEATH NOTE: Injustice, Morality, & Righteous Murder

Death Note. 2017. Directed by Adam Wingard. Screenplay by Charley Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides, & Jeremy Slater.
Starring Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield, Margaret Qualley, Shea Whigham, Willem Dafoe, Jason Liles, & Paul Nakauchi.
Netflix
Not Rated. 101 minutes.
Fantasy/Horror/Mystery/Thriller

★★★★1/2

Disclaimer: This discussion will contain SPOILERS. Turn around now, lest ye be spoiled utterly.
DN POSTERLet it be known, I’ve had no experience with Death Note in any way, shape, or form. Sure, I know the premise. But manga, anime, even just regular animated films, these things aren’t in my interests, outside a few titles like Perfect Blue and others.
On top of that, I feel fans of certain series’ are overly sensitive about adaptations. I love many books, many films from countries outside my own (which is Canada, by the way). Just don’t understand getting upset that a movie didn’t get made solely for the people who are already fans.
There’s absolutely a willingness to cater to fans of the source material, no denying. Seems many forget, though – the movie business is, at the end of the day, a business. They’re not going to make a movie JUST for fans. There has to be an appeal outside of that. So to expect there’ll be no deviation, no attempt at doing something different is as selfish as it is stupid.
Moreover, people wanted to say this was a whitewashed film, which is total nonsense. Whitewashing’s a huge problem in Hollywood, however, Adam Wingard – as well as screenwriters Charley and Vlas Parlapanides and Jeremy Slater – took the source material here, transposing the story into an American form, allowing for their own plots to take place.
You don’t need to know anything about the original Death Note, nor any of its adaptations to know this is not a case of any Asian culture being whitewashed. They’re not using anything Japanese here, except for a Japanese character being involved. There’s a problem with outrage these days in the film community: choose the proper time to be outraged. Wingard & Co. actually went to great lengths to ensure their film DIDN’T whitewash Japanese culture, instead truly giving their adaptation an American sense of self.
All that being said, let’s put the faux outrage aside and discuss what makes Death Note one of Father Son Holy Gore’s favourite horror flicks this year.
DN1The entire overarching theme in the film of morality and injustice, how sometimes we’re faced with no justice unless we’re to overcome our own morality to find vengeance. Then, is it still justice? Or something else entirely? Light (Nat Wolff) presents us with a case of understanding a vigilante, a guy whose mother was killed and had to watch the killer go free. On the opposite side is L (Lakeith Stanfield), the righteous arm of the law that’s so hellbent on pure justice he won’t even carry a gun because “its distracting“; he is the antithesis throughout this story to the position of L.
Ryuk: “There are no sides, only the game.”
There’s the process o the law, then there’s human emotion and expectation. Who gets to decide the law, the punishment for breaking it? Vigilantism is a slippery slope. Light believes that “sometimes you gotta choose the lesser of two evils.” Yet you’re still choosing evil, if that’s the case. The best exemplification of this theme carried through is watching L’s trajectory, going from a man wanting only real justice, a pure form of law to cast out criminals, to one who’s ready to even forego the gun and go straight to the Death Note book in the end; or will he? Love that we end on that beat, with L hovering over his decision, Light telling his father the truth, and Ryuk watching from the shadows in grim amusement. Justice can let good people down. By the finale, we see many ways in which the quest against injustice can warp people into haggard, unreal versions of themselves.
DN2Wingard, even in his more fantastical bits of work, has an ability to keep his films grounded. Even in the strangest of ways. For instance, the chase later in the film when L’s finally picked up a gun again is uber realistic. Unlike the archetypal Hollywood chase scene, L and Light both knock people over, smashing dishes, one guy gets his faced mashed into a bowl of food at the counter of a diner, liquids and ketchup and everything goes flicking everywhere. More than that there’s a feeling of, amongst the fantasy, a reality. The characters feel genuine, like actual people, with true motivation and desire. This is effectively what drives the human plot at the story’s heart, the decisions of morality each character grapples with at one point or another.
Much to love in this film. A bunch of great effects, from Ryuk’s quietly terrifying look to decapitations, heads smashing into bloody bits, people tossing themselves off a building en masse. Tons of spectacle-like horror. Chase scene between L and Light is a neon-lit, shadow drenched action sequence that feels – in a good way – like it could’ve been another scene in Wingard’s earlier picture, The Guest. During the climactic scene, there’s a massive, impressive action set-piece with scary and intense emotion mixed together, plus a nasty, scheming Ryuk – or so we’re led to believe.
And that big scene’s music choice is PERFECT! In fact, the score from Atticus and Leopold Ross is all around excellent, like something out of the ’80s and fitting like a glove. Even the soundtrack with INXS and much more is killer.
Of course the shining point, for me, is the performance of Lakeith Stanfield as L. The rest of the cast is stellar, without question. Lakeith works on another level, providing nuance and meat for his character, embodying the strange posture and all the idiosyncrasies such as his craving for sweet things. It’s phenomenal watching him work, the intensity on his face alone is enough to sell the role. He and Dafoe, doing the perfect voice for an American Ryuk, lift an already solid cast to new heights.
DN3People will say what they want, existing fan bases will rage if they don’t get what THEY want. But Father Son Holy Gore says Wingard’s Death Note is a fascinating piece of work, a best in horror for 2017. Filmmakers will never please the fans of a long-running series. Nowadays, while there’s actual whitewashing to be concerned about, directors and writers (etc) have to contend with the added outrage people love to toss around on social media. As someone who has no previous affections for this series, Wingard drew me into this world; one which, previously, I didn’t even care about, one which I now might like to see more of soon.
Regardless of what people say, this is recommended. Make your own decisions. And think long, hard about your decision to rail against supposed whitewashing. As previously mentioned, there are so many other better places for that argument, places where it’s actually warranted. This movie? It’s just a goddamn fun, spooky, thrilling ride that I’ll gladly take more than once.

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