“What they want is a god, so let’s give it to them.” – Light Turner
“You’re the one who flew into the sun. I’m just here to make sure you burn.” – L
Therein lies the message of this story. Identity. To those who have achieved a sense of identity I say to you, well fucking done. Discovering one’s identity in the age of the internet is virtually impossible. I’m 35 years old and I still sometimes struggle with my identity. Who am I? What am I doing? What is my purpose? These are all questions humans do (and should) ask themselves. And I don’t think it’s awful if you never stop asking yourself those questions. Maybe I’m wrong. Who knows. But let’s get out of our heads for a minute because this is supposed to be a movie review.
*Disclaimer: I have zero knowledge of the source material.
Death Note is a story that revolves around four central characters: Light (Nat Wolff, The Fault In Our Stars), a moody teenager who has recently lost his mom to a drunk driver; Mia (Margaret Qualley, The Nice Guys), an emo cheerleader (?) who smokes during practice and is Light’s girlfriend; L (Lakeith Stanfield, Get Out) a special investigator brought on by the FBI to solve the Kira case; James (Shea Whigham, Take Shelter), Light’s hard-nosed, detective father. And then we have Ryuk (Willem Dafoe), but we’ll get to him in a bit. These four central characters are all dealing with identity in their own, very unique ways.
Let’s start with Light. Here we have a 17/18-year-old boy who has recently lost his mother to vehicular homicide by a scumbag who got off scot-free by paying off the jury during his trial. We’ve all been teenagers at some point in our lives. That time of our lives may be closer to some than others, or maybe you’re in high school right now (I don’t know our demo breakdown). The point is, we’ve all suffered through that shit. You may have been the popular girl/boy or the weirdo outcast, but inside we were all dealing with (generally) the same issues of identity. So in that aspect we can relate to Light. Throw on top of that the tragic loss of a parent. And THEN top it off with a cop dad who, let’s be honest, has always probably been kind of an asshole and distant. Light has no friends, no girlfriend, no sense of purpose. He spends his time filling out other kids’ take-home math quizzes for money. He’s getting a false sense of self by thinking he’s buying his friends. But that doesn’t occur to him. He KNOWS what he’s doing is wrong (cheating), but he doesn’t think about the fact that he has to pay people to give him the slightest bit of attention. I am in no way dogging on Light (or anyone like this character in real life) because I know that kid. I’ve seen that kid. I loved that kid.
I worked with middle and high school students for nearly 10 years, so I saw every type of teenage personality you could think of. As I’ve stated in the past, I usually gravitated more towards the kids like Light Turner because I was Light Turner (minus the buying friends part). It’s because of that that I LOVE this character. So we have our struggling teenage boy filling out his “friends’” homework on the bleachers while the cheerleaders are pyramiding and whatnot, and a girl smiles at him! From that point on, Light will do any goddamn thing that girl wants. I know this because I WAS A HORMONAL, TEENAGE BOY. ‘Brain? What brain? Oh, hello Mr. Penis. You’re the boss now.’ This evolves and mutates into the reality that is teenage hormones throughout the movie until the final climax (pun intended), where the boy is putty in the girl’s hand, for better or worse. (It’s worse. It’s always worse.)
All of a sudden, a mysterious notebook drops from the sky (take note, filmmakers; just make shit happen immediately, I guess). So our protagonist – a teenage boy that has always struggled to get any type of upper hand – picks up the notebook, discovers its powers (write a name, picture their face while writing, they die; pretty simple), and goes to town trying to make the world a better place. Criminals of Earth start dropping like flies. All seems good. Light creates a persona (ahem, false identity) to take credit for the killings. And just like me, he likes the recognition, but not the direct attention (and I mean EXACTLY like me; love me, but don’t put me in the actual spotlight). And here we have our pull quote: “What they want is a god, so let’s give it to them.” Light is projecting (much like I’m doing now) the idea that the entire world needs some sort of false identity to cling to in order to gain a sense of comfort. He is that false identity, therefore giving him a false sense of comfort. Does that make any sense?
Let’s move on to Mia. First off, our introduction to Mia is very strange. She’s a cheerleader but she’s smoking during practice and not really participating. Fine whatever. She’s the bad cool girl, I guess. So she smiles at the cute boy on the bleachers, knows immediately that she’s in control, and then exploits that. With a creative team bursting at the seams with men, I’ll admit, the character of Mia is POORLY written. Whereas I can truly relate to Light because he’s written so well (and brutally honest), Mia is a pure figment of a 30-something male’s imagination. This is not to take anything away from Qualley’s performance. She does a FANTASTIC job playing the part she was given. But I can imagine there were more than a handful of times reading the script that she just wanted to scream. Anyways…
Mia is our typical teen who is going against the grain. Cheerleader, but also smoker. Popular, but also bangs the outcasts. She uses that to her advantage, and gets what she wants. Mia actually WANTS to be that god that Light is trying to create. Light just wants that temporary feeling of being the god. Mia has a carnal thirst for control. And that’s because she’s afraid of what she might find if she looks deep within herself. We get glimpses of Mia’s beautiful heart, but she let’s the power smother that light (pun intended).
Then we have L. Lakeith Stanfield delivers one of my favorite performances of the past decade. I imagine L to be somewhere on the Autism Spectrum. I could also be way off base, but I’ve worked with a few kids in the past that I immediately harkened back to when we were introduced to L. He’s brilliant, peculiar, and very lovable. An orphan who was adopted by a sensei-esque Japanese man, L has a brain like that of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes. (And now that I’m thinking of it, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective is probably where the original DN creators discovered their own detective.) L isn’t struggling with his own identity per se. He’s dealing in other people’s identities. He’s fascinated by them. ‘What makes a person tick? Why is this person this way? Who is doing these mass killings? But more importantly, what is the feeling they get when they orchestrate such things?’ Out of all the characters in the film, L is the one who is surest of his own identity. And more than anything (I think), he wants to help people discover theirs. Case in point, the other pull quote: “You’re the one who flew into the sun. I’m just here to make sure you burn.” Sure, on the surface L is talking about taking responsibility for your actions. But the more I thought about it, I realized he had his own motives. ‘Yes, you have to pay for what you’ve done. But I want to know WHY you did it in the first place.’ Because of his intricacies, L starts to crack throughout the movie, revealing his own truth, flaws, persona, etc. But just like every other character, L doesn’t show true emotions.
Speaking of emotions – or lack thereof – let’s talk about James Turner. Shea Whigham has shown me that he can really only play one type of character (DeNiro, Pesci, Downey, Jr. etc.), but he plays that one character really fucking well. A middle-aged widower, raising a moody teenager, hated by his fellow cops, with the feds breathing down his neck, James is dealing with an insurmountable amount of pressure. If we look at this character breakdown, we can see a little deeper into the personality of this guy. A cop who lost his wife and is now a single father: probably going to be an asshole. I think it’s safe to assume he was an asshole even before he left his wife because that’s how most cops are written (except Carl Winslow and Carey Mahoney). With that in mind, I think we can also assume he didn’t have a close relationship with his son in the first place. So then these two lose their matriarch and the relationship becomes even more strained. There is one single time where we see this father/son team express any type of affection for one another, and even then their “I love yous” are barely audible. Sure, we see emotion from James, but it’s never positive emotion. And that’s something I’d love to see more of: asshole cops who eventually crack and show positive emotions. Therein lies James Turner’s identity crisis: as a man he’s (read: we’ve) been taught to push down any type of emotion because he’s supposed to be the strong, dominating male cop/father. He’s afraid to discover his true identity.
Finally, Ryuk. Perfectly cast with Dafoe doing a cartoonishly sinister voice, Ryuk is the little devil that sits on all of our shoulders. Yes, all of us. I won’t say much about this character because I think we all know this character. Very well, in fact. He/She is a little different for each person, but there’s a little Ryuk inside each of us.
Overall, Death Note has been my favorite movie of 2017 so far. And not just because it’s Adam Wingard. It’s big, it’s fun, it has Seattle as a backdrop. The cinematography and lighting will transport you to another dimension. As far as the whitewashing claims, like I said before, I don’t know anything about the original source material, but there is the original manga, there’s the Japanese TV series, and there’s a Japanese live-action movie. Just like Ringu, and Ju-On, this is the American remake of a Japanese piece of art. (For more harsh thoughts, listen to the podcast.) Netflix once again shows that they can do big budget movies with feeling. They’re giving deserving filmmakers chances they probably wouldn’t get from the big studios. It’s a great stepping stone for directors like Wingard to jump from in order to get to Godzilla movies.
Once a film is given to the world, the filmmaker’s ideas behind the story and intentions become obsolete. Their art becomes open to interpretation. I don’t know (nor do I really care) what the true message the filmmakers were trying to get across with Death Note. I think, though, that we got a great tale of the human condition and how we all struggle with identity. Now I want to hear what you thought.