Western adaptations of anime have as awful a reputation as video game adaptations. Hey, one out of two for Netflix ain’t bad.
Death Note (2017) is a fantasy horror based on the anime of the same name and directed by Adam Wingard. It stars Nat Wolff as Light Turner, a bright high school student who becomes the newest owner of a death note, a mystical book that kills anyone whose name is written in it. Teaming up with his crush from school, Mia (Margaret Qualley), the two of them begin a worldwide crusade against criminals under the name Kira, a crusade that eventually gets the attention of the mysterious L (Lakeith Stanfield) and Light’s owner father James (Shea Whigham).
Based off the exceptional anime of the same name (which I’ve seen in full, side note), Death Note has plenty going against it. While its clearly some sort of passion project for director Wingard, anime adaptations have a horrid track record, and while Death Note does one thing well, overall this is nothing more than a contributor to that track record.
Starting with the plot and its got an immediate hook in its premise: what if you had the ability to kill whomever you please by only knowing their name and face. In addition, while Wingard clearly has high reverence for the source material, he’s not afraid to make significant changes in the name of adaption – even if the changes themselves are hit and miss. While some do a good job establishing the film in a more grounded world, others completely undermine the drama with weird tonal shifts from serious to absurd to even somewhat Final Destination. In addition the film has a tendency to feel rushed due to it trying to cram an exuberant amount of plot into its brief 101 minutes and there really isn’t enough breathing room to let aspects like Light’s development and the world’s response to Kira really grow or be expressed at all.
Speaking of Light’s development, that’s a major facet that is lacking across the board here. One of the biggest strengths behind the anime was Light’s god complex and sense of justice, but his motivations are not only barely touched on, but are also completely undermined several times throughout the film. It also doesn’t help that Nat Wolff has the screen presence of a moldy piece of bread – not that his companion Qualley fares much better. Mia is an even thinner character than Light, and their chemistry together is as electrifying as a dead battery.
Thankfully however, the rest of the cast manages to carve out a little bit of respectability for themselves. Whigham is perfectly serviceable as Light’s father, and Stanfield as L is actually quite good (even if his character feels rushed at times) but we can’t forget the absolute star of the show, Willem DaFoe. DaFoe plays Ryuk, a death god that follows the Death Note around and this feels like the role he was destined to play. While his screentime is limited, DaFoe is as close you get to a death god in real life and it seems only fair for him to play one on screen – and its the best damn thing in the whole movie.
Honestly there’s little more to say about Wingard’s Death Note, and the longer I dwell on it the more afraid I’m going to fall back into binging the anime to wipe it from my mind. Aside from DaFoe’s Ryuk and a handle of smart changes, there’s little more to recommend here. The leads are completely flat, the characters are underdeveloped, the film is rushed and it spends far too much time setting up sequels that will likely never come. Its a shame movies don’t count as people, because if they did I would be writing this one down for death the first chance I got.
General Audiences: Not Recommended
Film Buffs: Not Recommended
True Believers (Death Note): Burn it