Review: DEATH NOTE

Manga and anime fans get their own THE DARK TOWER

On paper, genre-stalwart Adam Wingard (You’re Next, The Guest) directing an adaptation of the legendary manga/anime series Death Note starring a group of young talented actors sounds like a recipe for success. Sadly, the end result has more in common with that other highly-anticipated high-profile adaption from a while ago: The Dark Tower. Just like that film, Wingard’s Death Note is a horribly comprised adaptation that fundamentally misunderstands its own source material.

In hindsight, condensing a sprawling 12 volumes-spanning tale into a 100-minute feature film was a gross miscalculation from the start. The episodic nature of the source material means it would have been perfectly suited to have been given the Netflix-miniseries treatment, in the vein of The Defenders. What we have instead is a film that rushes through at least two hour-long episodes worth of material in its first twenty minutes and only keeps going from there. The titular Death Note, a supernatural notebook that grants whoever it belongs to the power to kill anyone they want, just by writing their name in the notebook while picturing their face, falls into protagonist Light Turner’s (Nat Wolff) lap after two minutes. Five minutes and an exposition-heavy speech from death god Ryuk (played by Jason Liles, voiced by Willem Dafoe) later, he has already killed a school bully with it.

That pace never lets up, which also means there’s never any room for reflection. There are no moments to give the audience a sense of who Light is. Apart from the briefest of introductory scenes, which shows us he makes tests for other students but is still picked on, he essentially remains a blank slate. This is where the script by Charles and Vlas Parlapanides and Jeremy Slater falters the most. It wouldn’t have been difficult to utilize the change in setting from Japan to the United States as a means to make a statement about white privilege. For example, by making Light a very successful and well-off Ivy League student, who already harbours extremist views that are only made bigger by the Death Note. Instead, Light’s Messiah complex manifests more or less overnight.

It doesn’t help that Wolff is by far the weakest link in the cast. He’s hammy at all the wrong moments – the scene where he’s first confronted by Ryuk is just one Benny Hill theme short of being a total laugh riot – and delivers most of the big emotional beats in a nasal yelp that makes him sound like he’s auditioning to front a pop-punk emo band. On top of that, he’s saddled with an unfortunate bleached hairdo that makes him look like a young version of Anton Chigurh from No Country For Old Men. Meanwhile, Willem Dafoe collects a paycheck so easily, he might as well be literally phoning it in. After all, creepy menace is something he can convey in his sleep and that’s all the role of Ryuk asks of him. He has also done facial motion capture for the role, but since Ryuk appears out of focus or in the dark most of the time, that doesn’t really pay off. The CGI used on the character is pretty awful, which would make keeping him out of focus a blessing were it not for the fact that losing the detail on the character doesn’t exactly do the design any favors.

Margaret Qualley, who you might remember from that amazing Spike Jonze-directed perfume ad, fares better as Mia Sutton, a girl from Light’s school who becomes both his girlfriend and his partner in crime. Though Mia is ultimately nothing more than an unusually murder-happy manic pixie dream girl, Qualley’s effortless charisma shines through, even when she’s put through increasingly moronic plot machinations as the film plods on. The real standout is Lakeith Stanfield as L, the eccentric detective who is hot on Light’s trail. Stanfield is absolutely magnetic in the role, especially when he fully leans into the character’s exaggerated mannerisms, such as every scene where he squats on chairs instead of sitting on them. L feels like he has walked straight off the pages of a manga, which injects all the scenes he’s in with a sense of energy the rest of the film sorely lacks.

This is exactly why the midsection of the film works the best. The plot is still a mess, but thanks to a gratuitous heaping of L, at least most scenes have something interesting going on. While Wingard’s direction is rather boilerplate most of the time, the second act has a few scenes that seem to hold his interest. A detour into an abandoned orphanage is one of the only legitimately creepy sequences in the film and there’s a scene involving a mass suicide that’s executed with pulpy gusto. That scene is also marks the only occasion where one of the the lengthy Final Destination-esque kill scenes where Light’s victims are picked off actually works. All of the others are saddled with goofily excessive gore that lessens their impact, though a scene where a man gets electrocuted so hard his head explodes demands to be seen to be believed.

Like every movie, Death Note eventually has to end and there a mediocre movie transforms into a truly bad one. The movie stumbles to a halt as numerous inane plot machinations are set into motion, cumulating in a climax with so many reveals you get the sense you’re watching a movie that really wants to be The Prestige. If that wasn’t bad enough, the final two major scenes are soundtracked by two of the worst needle drops this side of Suicide Squad. That’s without even mentioning the actual ending, which comes so abruptly it left me loudly explaining: “That’s it!?” If this was ever meant to be a franchise starter, suffice to say this ending doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for more stories.

This all makes the film ultimately come off as a rather pointless exercise. The change in setting adds nothing to the story – it takes place into Seattle, but the generic way the city is used that could be anywhere – and storywise there’s nothing here that wasn’t done better in either the manga or the anime. Maybe someday a Western adaptation of Death Note that actually updates the story in an interesting way will come along, but until then you’d be best off just sticking to the source material.

  • Andrew Clark

    How disappointing!

  • Andrew Clark

    Something that I thought the manga did mostly well (which is pretty good although I confess to not finishing it ever because it meanders on faaaar too long) was having Light be the best student of his class and how his cold, sociopathic detachment is actually celebrated by his peers and environment as being beneficial to his life and career.

    So the culture around him actually encourages him to behave like the megalomaniac he becomes. He was already an arrogant, holier-than-thou prick BEFORE he got the Death Note, it just became an instrument for him to exact his will and become what he thought he was all along: a god among mortals.

    You can tie this into a lot of cultural stuff (Japanese exceptionalism, xenophobia, etc) at play. There’s even a lengthy section in the manga where Light goes out of his way to make the FBI look incompetent while torturing several of them to death just because he can.

    It’s sad that it sounds like this wasn’t translated to be about a young American who, filled with the righteous indignation that American exceptionalism instills in so many of us, uses that as an excuse to think he knows better than everyone else.

  • SmithDoc

    i thought the film was just terrible, possibly one of the worst i’ve seen —but not because i thought it could’ve been closer in spirit to the manga. disclosure: i read the entirety of the Death Note manga (2,400 pages!) in the day before the film’s release, so it’s not like i’m a long-time fan with expectations, but i do have a very detailed memory of it.

    i think the trouble with the film stems from the half-hearted loyalty to the manga’s characterization — L and Light and Light’s father, for instance, fulfill similar narrative roles as they do in the text. but because the context is changed, the characters themselves feel artificial. L, for instance, is the kind of character who needs an ensemble of detectives to springboard against, but with this film he’s totally isolated. and thus his quirks feel unprompted—because who is he reacting to? usually, only the camera. it’s campy as fuck.

    similarly, the decision to change Light’s family situation —killing off his mother and removing the sister character entirely — make Light and his father’s home life seem very empty and sad. this in turn removes the nuance from Light’s character —he’s no longer from a happy home, and so it’s now much easier to pin his motivation on simply being mentally ill, rather than ideological. he uses the Death Note because he’s pathetic, essentially.

    all of that said, i don’t think the film should’ve tried to solve these problems by increasing fidelity to the text. instead, they should’ve renamed all of the characters and significantly deviated from character details. why make L a rich genius with a Japanese guardian for instance? within Death Note’s new context, it’s such a bizarre characterization choice and it only points more strongly towards whitewashing.

    the idea of Death Note would’ve resonated as more strongly as an adaptation if they’d simply made it a high school-based horror film. make “L” an inquisitive, suspicious student or local cop working with Light’s father. eliminate all of the baroque details that only work in a 12 volume manga. make it a story with its’ own standalone identity, like a sequel, essentially.

    the film also feels embarrassingly incomplete —especially in the final act.

    • Paul Barrett

      The scene where Light first meets Ryuk for the first time and freaks out was posted on twitter and when I first saw it I assumed it was re-edited and

      • SmithDoc

        this film is so over the top —compared to the manga and animé’s very sedate tone. wingard should’ve worked to make the narrative better fit that overt stylishness. instead it shifts tone constantly trying to appease the original material and the director’s aesthetic intent.

  • Paul Barrett

    Just watched it there. It was weird how all over the place the tone was considering how good Wingard was at balancing tone in ‘You’re Next’ and ‘The Guest’. Maybe he loses something without Simon Barrett (no relation) or the Calders.