The pen, it is often said, is mightier than the sword – but imagine if you could kill someone remotely merely by writing their name (while picturing their face) in a special book, and perhaps adding a few words about the details of their demise. If this sounds like the wish-fulfilment fantasy of any online warrior – or indeed scriptwriter – then it is also the high-concept premise of Adam Wingard’s Death Note, the first American incarnation of a story that in Japan has already appeared in the form of Tsugumi Ohba’s manga series, an anime, live-action movies and TV dramas, a novelisation and video games. If the film comes with something of a hand-me-down plot, then the Death Note itself literally falls out of the sky into the hands of teen Light Turner (Nat Wolff), its pages already half-filled with the murderous scribblings of previous owners. Death Note comes inscribed with its own tradition.
While the scenario is familiar, the script (like the location) has changed. Light is no longer the genius psychopath of the original, but a naïve idealist who at first hopes to use the Death Note to become a world-improving superhero, and only gradually comes to recognise the spiralling moral consequences of his remotely delivered actions. That disconnect between cause and effect is of course what makes this films so resonant: as we hear that Light and his girlfriend Mia Sutton (Margaret Qualley) go through online lists of potential criminal targets while eating popcorn on a romantic night in together, we realise that their vicarious thrills are not unlike our own whenever we log on to our computers or even watch movies (just like Death Note).
Even as Light’s own policeman father James (Shea Whigham), the enigmatic superdetective ‘L’ (Lakeith Stanfield) and L’s Japanese (a nod to the original) assistant Watari (Paul Nakauchi), all engage in a cat-and-mouse game of wits with Light, Light himself begins to grasp that the Death Note is less powerbook than corrupting curse. This brings to Light a new internal conflict, lending his character a psychological nuance absent form the original – while that conflict is dramatised externally in his conversations with Ryuk, a death demon (and slippery expositor) visible only to the Death Note’s keeper – and inimitably voiced by Willem Dafoe.
The premise of Death Note is both killer and deliriously daft, and Wingard is deft in his handling of both these aspects, expertly offsetting the dark humour with the occasional shock of graphically gory horror.