This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Will Walker’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
Great satire is rarely recognized in its own time. That goes double when said satirical material is genuinely ambitious and technically impressive. That goes triple when said satirical material is an adaptation of a beloved IP. Films like Basic Instinct, Starship Troopers and the especially reviled Showgirls were met with mass critical panning on release, it wasn't until over a decade later that they would gain appreciation from the critics who once slammed them. So it makes sense that the initial reception to Adam Wingard's Death Note is almost universally negative. However, much like the reception of the aforementioned films, the critics and audiences are again wrong. Death Note is the most clever, interesting, well made and misunderstood social critique since Showgirls and easily the most underrated film of 2017. Furthermore, I would make the argument that the film is actually superior to the anime in which it is based on, which unintentionally fed the juvenile power fantasies of too many a teenage boy.
Unlike Light Yagami, the unironically edgy and seemingly invulnerable Gary Stu of the anime, Nat Wolff's Light Turner possesses a genuine pathos. The arrogance, entitlement and narcissism of his anime counterpart are still present, but Wolff imbues the character with a deep insecurity and sensitivity that Yagami never had. The screenwriters never make the mistake of justifying Turner's God complex or making him sympathetic; he's a selfish, naive teenager in way over his head. Light Turner is not only an effective allegory for entitled and pathetic school shooter youth a la Elliot Rodger, but for every mouth-breathing, edgelord fanboy of the anime who unironically idolized Light Yagami; unsubstantial, pretentious, vulnerable and cowardly. Light Turner is simultaneously amusing and tragic (If only in his stubborn, weaseling refusal to mature or grow into a decent human being with empathy), as is his narrative downfall.
And how fitting it is for a critique of entitled edgelord youth to take Misa Amane, Yagami's obedient sex object from the anime, and transform her into Mia Sutton, the ruthless, manipulative, calculating and intelligent seductress played by Margaret Qualley? (Who makes a hard and convincing case in this film for playing a teenage Poison Ivy in the DCEU.) Qualley steals the show as Sutton, giving easily the best performance in the film as every Yagami worshiper's worst nightmare; an uncontrollable and untameable, female force of nature, unfazed by Turner's adoration and unconvinced by his insistence of a moral highground. "You don't get to feel superior for being a pussy." she tells Light. Qualley's biting delivery perfectly sells the hard truth of her words. At the same time, Qualley's Mia does evoke a genuine sympathy that a lesser actress may not have achieved. She's a character who isn't taken seriously or respected by anyone; not even her supposedly loving boyfriend. While not overplayed, Qualley does an excellent job displaying this disappointment and hurt in Mia in her facial acting.
Shea Wingham gives a powerful and nuanced performance as Light Turner's father, Detective James Turner. Fiercely protective of his unworthy son, the inevitability of the collapse of their relationship hangs over their every interaction, even as it seemingly grows warmer over the course of the film. The parallels between his character and the real life parents of mass shooters are fairly obvious, the film criticizing them for their refusal to accept who their sons are and what they're capable of without ever judging or condemning them for not coming to terms with their sons' monsterhood. This is the core of truly great tragedy; the certainty of its arrival and the false hopes of the audience that things can end any other way.
Lakeith Stanfield does for L what Heath Ledger did for The Joker, what he pulls off is extraordinarily transformative. From his physical mannerisms to his vocal ticks to his subtle facial expressions, Stanfield is an anime character brought to life in glorious fashion. Much like Wolff's Light, Stanfield's L has a real emotional vulnerability and sensitivity that was never present in the anime incarnation. L may be brilliant and eccentric, but he is also breakable and fallible. Capable of being pushed too far. I found him truly fascinating. If Mia is the worst nightmare of every Yagami fan, L isn't far behind; an uncompromising, super intelligent black teenager in a hoodie on a righteous campaign to bring down a privileged white boy with a God complex. It's as upsetting as it is expected to see why the more fringe members of the Death Note fandom were so intimidated by a black actor playing L.
Fanboys will pine for the ultra-serious and nihlistic tone of the anime. Wingard's Death Note brings self awareness to the material and a brilliant sense of dark humor. The film's gore is increased from the anime to an almost cartoonish degree, straight out of the most ludicrous and over-the-top fantasies of an Eric Harris or Dylan Klebold. Much of the soundtrack almost appears mocking and condescending of Light and his pathetic struggle for mass validation. This is satire at its finest.
The direction of the film is gorgeous. Much like the aforementioned Showgirls, Wingard uses aesthetic beauty and grandeur as a visual metaphor for the "All that glimmers isn't gold" themes of the film. Particularly effective is a scene in which Light is reunited with Mia after discovering her treachery, the beautiful Qualley almost sparkling aside packs of teenagers that may as well be faceless. Qualley's Mia is most enchanting at her most dangerous and independent and the cinematography reflects that. Even more effective is the film's climax on the Seattle Great Wheel, in which Light experiences the grand finale of all his failures and the ultimate cost of his unjustified hubris.
Speaking of, the climax of Death Note is everything it needed to be. Chicago's "I Don't Wanna Live Without Your Love" is hilarious when juxtaposed with Light's deepest low of the film. Conversely, the later image of Light Turner in tears at a hospital bed in light of everything he lost in his misguided quest for validation and godhood is hard not to be affected by (In no small part due to Nat Wolff's outstanding facial acting. "I thought it was simple at first, I'd just kill all the bad guys and the good guys would win but it wasn't like that," he cries.)
Netflix's Death Note is easily the most underrated film of 2017 and I firmly believe it will find its audience as a future cult classic. A funny, emotional, tragic and beautiful satirical work that's merely waiting for the fanboy fervor to slow down and critical reappraisal to begin. A much more self aware, and more intelligent, story than the anime and a wonderfully post-modern critique of edgelord and school shooter youth. Paul Verhoeven would have loved Adam Wingard's Death Note.