Running Time: 101 Minutes
Director: Adam Wingard
Cast: Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield, Margaret Qualley, Shea Whigham & Willem Dafoe
Available on Netflix now
Light Turner, a bright student, stumbles across a mystical notebook that has the power to kill any person whose name he writes in it. Light decides to launch a secret crusade to rid the streets of criminals. Soon, the student-turned-vigilante finds himself pursued by a famous detective known only by the alias L.
Adam Wingard’s The Guest is a modern classic and not enough people know this. That’s mainly because they haven’t seen it. Released in 2014, it didn’t make much of an impact at the Box Office either here in the UK & Ireland or in the US but those that did see it realized that Adam Wingard (along with writer and frequent collaborator Simon Barrett) had created an instant cult classic.
It’s what mainstream critics would call dumb but smartly delivered (which is basically what The AV Club said) but that’s a huge disservice to both Wingard and Barrett as well as being hugely patronising.
Both The Guest and (their previous collaboration) You’re Next have hugely appealing surfaces but they also have hidden depths and more than a little biting social commentary. You’re Next flips the narrative of the typical slasher movie by having the female lead as a strong, deadly foe as opposed to the typical scream queen. The Guest takes place in the aftermath of a soldier returning home from the war in Afghanistan but he’s more than a little unstable and the US government had a hand in making him unstable. These things are not minor and an audience, consciously or not, can pick up on these things.
With Death Note, from the opening shot to the last, you realize you are watching a film-maker with a supreme sense of awareness about, not just about his own abilities, but what an audience wants. That’s not to imply that Death Note is in any way predictable as it’s a brilliant mesh of 80s pop music, teen angst romance and a healthy dose of gory horror.
Death Note jumps straight into the action (after a rather gorgeous opening montage soundtracked to “Reckless” by Australian Crawl) as Light Turner, played with requisite loner delight by Nat Wolff, happens upon a notebook that literally falls from the heavens. We soon find out that said notebook is accompanied by a Death God (or Shinigami) only Light can see, played by a cackling Willem Defoe, who informs Light that when a name gets put in the notebook, that person dies.
It’s pretty mad stuff but it’s all done in such a grounded, believable way that it never feels silly and crucially you care about Light and the budding romance between him and Mia, a fellow loner who becomes more than just his girlfriend; Mia finds out about the Death Note and she essentially becomes Bonnie to his Clyde; the crucial difference being that they only kill those that they feel deserve it: Killers, rapists, terrorists are all fair game to Light and Mia.
This isn’t the first film adaptation of Death Note as there already 4 Japanese films (plus a related web series) based on the manga comic but unfortunately these come across as expensive cosplay rather than an attempt at a proper adaptation. Much better is the anime TV show (also available on Netflix) that ran for 37 episodes and even for non-anime fans, it’s a smartly written and downright addictive watch that echoes the battle of wits that you might expect from Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty (or great grandfather James as I like to call him).
The Holmes/Moriarty dynamic is explored in this film when the stupendously scene stealing Lakeith Stanfield enters the fray as L, a super detective who is on the trail of Light and Mia after they decide to invent Kira, (Japanese for Killer) as way for the public to realise that those who do evil cannot hide behind decaying and indifferent systems of justice. Kira becomes seemingly worshipped by some as bad guys are met with an Old Testament style of judgement.
L correctly assumes, after setting an ingenious trap, that Kira is merely a person and not some omnipotent God bent on killing bad people. He, rightly of course, believes that Kira must be stopped because what they are doing is wrong but there’s a lot of slyly subversive commentary going on here from the indifferent high school principal who ignores that Light was assaulted by a bully to the everyman worker who helps Light later on in the film when he finds out he is Kira because he believes Kira is a force for good not ill.
Much like The Guest or You’re Next, it never loses its devious sense of humour and Death Note is a tremendous thrill ride that never lets up. The cinematography by David Tattersall is a gloriously 80s neon drenched wonder whilst the score (by Atticus and Leopold Ross) and production design (by Tom Hammock, another frequent Wingard collaborator) beautifully compliment the goth 80s vibe of the movie that seems to pay homage to A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 & 4 both in terms of aesthetics and sheer fun.
The performances are top notch across the board too but the real star – and it speaks volumes given the fact that it also stars noted scene stealers Willem Defoe, Shea Whigham and Lakeith Stanfield – is Margaret Qualley (so brilliant in The Leftovers) as Mia.
In the biggest departure from the manga/anime, Mia is a much stronger, meatier character here (essentially serving as the more sociopathic side of the original Light from the manga) and Qualley chews up every scene she’s in with an cunning insouciance yet still retains an air of vulnerability. She’s utterly brilliant in it and the chemistry between her and Nat Wolff sparks perfectly.
This departure from the original source material also serves up the biggest compliment I can give Wingard and the writers (Charles Parlapanides & Vlas Parlapanides and Jeremy Slater) as they’ve gone the route of LA Confidential and rather than try to directly adapt the huge and overwhelming source material, they’ve done their own thing and almost reimagined it but whilst still staying true to the spirit of the original manga/anime.
Wingard’s confidence and boldness is on full display with this film and it is incredibly infectious and even though the movie stands alone, it’s begging for a sequel. Death Note is a sublimely subversive tale about good versus evil but the heart of the movie is really a tragic teenage romance story that is genuinely affecting but crucially, judging by the song used to close the movie, never takes itself too seriously.
Not only is this a future teenage classic (that isn’t just for teens) that is fun, funny and frightening but it actually has something to say. Death Note is a pulsating, synth driven 80’s goth pop song of a movie that’s also the best thing you’ll see this summer.