Director – Adam Wingard
Cast – Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield, Margaret Qualley, Shea Whigham, Willem Dafoe, Jason Liles, Paul Nakauchi
Release Year – 2017
Reviewed by John of the Dead
After months of waiting and lots of speculation the American adaptation of the famed Japanese anime series has been released on Netflix. I must admit that from the start I was not excited for this. I loved the anime and also enjoyed the Japanese adaptations (Death Note, Death Note: The Last Name), but I did not feel that an adaptation from the western hemisphere would turn out well. On top of this, and I feel bad for saying such a thing, but I did not think this film would fit director Adam Wingard (You’re Next). I have remained a fan of the majority of his work, but after Blair Witch I was unsure that this would fit him. After viewing the film the moment it dropped and letting the experience stew in me for a few days I can finally express my thoughts on the piece. The way I see it, if you have viewed the source material it is almost a guarantee that you will feel underwhelmed. However, if this is your first foray into the realm of Death Note then you are in luck – you might dig it.
Nat Wolff stars as Light Turner, a bright high school student whose loner status means the only interaction he gets is from doing homework for others. When a mysterious notebook falls from the sky and into his possession, he inherits mystical powers that will turn his life upside down. Welding the power to kill anyone whose name is written in the book, Light launches a crusade to rid the streets, and the world, of criminal scum. Going by the alias Kira, Light is able to achieve justice in ways law enforcement cannot. As his popularity grows, this crusading vigilante attracts the attention of the world-renowned detective known as L (Lakeith Stanfield; Get Out). As he inches closer and closer to identifying the man that is Kira, a cat and mouse game takes Light’s crusade on a turn of the worst.
So, in general the story is the same. I personally dig this storyline a lot and love the idea of a young person welding power to change the world, albeit in an illegal and immoral fashion. Light is someone who is not used to having power. In this US version he is a loser who struggles in pretty much everything. He can’t even help people cheat without getting caught. Losing his mother to a mob boss ruined his relationship with his father, who is a detective with the local police force. When he learns of the powers of the Death Note, he sees an opportunity to make sure that justice is always served.
I enjoyed seeing this justice grow insidiously as well. Light starts off locally, but once he gets a grasp of things he takes his efforts worldwide. Even terrorists from across the globe fall victim to his power. Of course, the question to be asked is if Kira (Light) is a terrorist. I lean towards no, but when law enforcement / L begin to close in on him good people begin to die.
It is safe to assume that the extreme majority of folks watching the Netflix Death Note movie are watching it because they viewed the anime and are not new to the scene. Because of this it is not only impossible to write this review without comparisons to the source material, but it is probably the only reason you are reading.
First things first, we must go over the writing. There are three credited writers. Charley and Vlas Parlapanides, as well as Jeremy Slater – known for writing and producing The Exorcist television series. I would think that writing an anime series into a 100-minute film would be a daunting task. You are going to have to skimp on important elements, and that was the case here. The story does take off right away, with the Death Note falling into Light’s possession about 2.5 minutes into the experience. Ryuk shows up about 5 minutes after that, and a few minutes later we have our first kill. This kill was set up in awesome fashion, so I credit the writers there for hitting us hard at this early opportunity. L shows up at the 30 minute mark, so you can fill in the gaps there and see that Light really went to town on delivering the kills. With L showing up so early I had hopes that his character would not be wasted. While we do get enough of him, the quality of his scenes is lackluster. I see it as possible to have made the most of L in this limited runtime and therefore possible to deliver a solid effort. This was not the case though, as the most important use of L, which is his chase of Kirra (Light), was not used to full potential. This has to be a runtime issue in that there simply was not enough time to let this element develop properly. This was an issue I saw right away and further goes to show that this Death Note movie should have been told in several parts. Two 90 minute films would have sufficed, or better yet – four 60-minute episodes. While I assumed the runtime would doom them, I did not go into this effort with low expectations. This is an Adam Wingard film and the guy has given us some great work. This story, however, just can’t hang.
These issues of development are not limited to L and Light. This failure is of course the biggest travesty, but this is also the case with Light’s father, James. I did enjoy his character, namely because I was glad to see actor Shea Whigham (Splinter, Kong: Skull Island) do his thing. The dynamic between him and Light is unfavorable though, with only a few moments of bliss. As with the original series, Light’s girlfriend plays a prominent role and I was glad to see the writers give her a different angle. Instead of her being kept out of the loop, as she was in the original material, Mia is essentially Light’s partner in the killing. I enjoyed this, as she gives you that “ride or die” feel. She eventually becomes an unlikable character, but nonetheless I appreciated seeing something different.
I am saddened, but not surprised, to see that Wingard did not excel with this effort. He was somewhat doomed from the start considering how bad the writing is, but I expected him to do more with it. This is especially the case considering fans were told they busted their asses to get this out to us. To start, Wingard does set the tone very well. I enjoyed the atmosphere and his overall aesthetic. It’s dark, gloomy, and riddled with shadows. The kills were also enjoyable, as he mostly employed live action effects to give us some Final Destination-esque kill sequences. We aren’t given boring heart attacks like those seen in the previous material. These kills are vengeful and I liked that. As far as acting performances I was a bit disappointed here. I didn’t go in expecting the best when it came to that, but I at least wanted to see more convincing play between Light(Kira) and L. Seeing Lakieth Stanfield portray L was great and I am glad they gave this man a shot. I think the majority of fans would have liked to see an Asian person portray L, but going with this man was OK in my opinion. Do I feel he was the best for the part? No, I really don’t. He himself is a great actor, but he isn’t a great L. Had we been given the proper treatment with this character I could see Stanfield excelling, but what I saw was not enough to support that. Of all the performances I saw the only one I really enjoyed was Shea Whigham as Light’s father. Naturally, people are going to want to know about Ryuk, who was portrayed by Willem Dafoe. When he was tapped for the gig I was pretty excited and I know I was not alone. Dafoe definitely gives us the Norman Osborne performance and I did not mind it. Ryuk was nowhere near as silly as he was in the original material, nor did he look it. I did not mind seeing his look be a more daunting one in this adaptation, but it was not great either. There are plenty of ideas here that show promise in their inception, but the end product and its delivery is what lacked.
Overall, Death Note will likely be an underwhelming disappointment to those familiar with the anime series. It fails on pretty much every level aside from its aesthetic and a few sweet kills. This is not a film I can recommend, but it is possible that those without previous exposure to Death Note may enjoy it…until they view the source material.