I went to see the work in progress screening of Death Note as a fan of Adam Wingard. The premise is so intriguing that now Franchise Fred wants to explore the original Japanese adaptations too. That’s the best sign when one version is so good it makes you want to see all the other versions.
Light (Nat Wolff) receives a notebook called Death Note. The Death God Ryuk (Willem Dafoe) helps him out with the instructions. He can write someone’s name in the book and how they die, and Ryuk will make it happen. There are lots more rules that will complicate the story and make it intriguing how Light and his girlfriend Mia (Margaret Qualley) navigate them. You don’t want Ryan Gosling writing in this notebook.
After killing a bully, Light and Mia use the Death Note to kill bad people like terrorists and war criminals. You know what they say about great power. The film spends as much time dealing with the responsibility they face as it does dealing with the cool gory deaths they inflict.
Light and Mia use the power of the Death Note to assign blame for all the worldwide deaths to Kira. This is their entire undoing because people start to study Kira and try to catch him. Why didn’t they just leave it random? No one could possibly connect suicides to accidents, etc. but I can believe a teenager thought he had a fool proof plan and didn’t count on deductive adults piecing it together. His own father (Shea Whigham) is a cop and L (Lakeith Stanfield) narrows the clues down to their hometown of Seattle.
Death Note asks all the important the questions about wielding this power. It’s easy to think you’re sussing out baddies who deserve justice, but what if you have bad intel? Light and Mia keep learning new rules which both give them new power and more caveats. They’re all consistent, and leave room for even more rules in a sequel. Ryuk always has a loophole and he’s already thought of every trick Light would try to outsmart Death Note. It’s the old Monkey’s Paw fable. Careful what you wish for. The devil isn’t granting you wishes because he’s nice.
Some of the elaborate deaths fit the Final Destination model, which itself elaborated on The Omen but it’s a more recent and prolific reference. Light and Mia quickly get more specific with the deaths as they learn the rules. They are devilishly gory with a macabre sense of humor, like the deaths in You’re Next and The Guest.
Ryuk is an impish devil, mugging for the camera but Wingard is careful not to show him too much. You can see Dafoe’s performance behind the motion capture. Stanfield makes L a predator, perching on chairs as he confronts Light. Mia gets a bloodlust fairly early and I could worry that her arc may fuel misogynistic MRA fantasies. It’s unfortunate that the only female character has more negative qualities than Ryuk but I don’t know if that comes from the original manga and can’t discuss the story reasons for her behavior without spoiling.
There shouldn’t be much more work to do on Death Note. When it premieres on Netflix on August 25, you can discover the next great monster. Ryuk is the role Dafoe was born to play and I look forward to Ryuk messing with more well-meaning fools who get in over their heads in future movies. Franchise Fred approves.