Death Note is unfamiliar territory to me, in a sense. Personally speaking, I don’t fall into the tug-of-war that is medium comparison that often. What I mean is, I usually don’t know a movie’s source material before I see it. I rarely read the book beforehand (a lot of times afterwards), and, while I haven’t read any of the Death Note manga series that started as early as 2003, I’ve seen the anime, and I’ve even seen the two-part film saga that came out in 2006…and that’s not even all of them! A live-action mini-series and another film came out just last year, and the biggest common trait among all of these mediums is that they’re all based in Japan. Netflix’s Death Note is the first American translation, so does that make this a more interesting take? Or less interesting? Or does it really matter at all?
The chain of events start off the same in this Seattle-based version: a book falls from the sky and lands in the hands of a teenager named Light Turner (Nat Wolff) who’s a bit troubled. He sees violence and injustice all around the world — something he’s more keen of since his mother’s killer avoided all charges through bribery — and feels like someone needs to do something. That’s when Ryuk (voiced by Willem Dafoe) shows up, all teeth and eyes, letting him know how the Death Note works. Soon enough he uses it to eliminate all the scum on the planet, all by simply writing their name in the notebook. Just as quickly as he starts, his actions attract the oddest cheerleader in school, Mia (Margaret Qualley), and soon the pair start planning the deaths of the world’s villains, going under the actions of Kira, a name they created that acts as a god among gods. Most of the world view Kira as their savior, while a precious few such as Light’s detective father (Shea Whigham), and a mysterious private investigator known as L (Lakeith Stanfield) feel like they need to bring him to justice. Things get out of hand quickly…and they kind of have to since we’re restricted by a feature-length runtime.
I imagine the first obvious question is, are Death Note fans going to be upset about the transition from Japanese-to-American culture? When this project was first announced and the details emerged, I was one of the people among the social media outcry who wanted to give this film a chance to see if would properly (not lazily) transform itself to our stateside culture. It’s been done before, and even our films have been remade in other countries. To me, that’s not the problem. That’s the purpose of an adaptation, isn’t it? Unfortunately, the filmmakers don’t quite reach that level of distinction. Yes, it’s in Seattle, but why keep certain traits that are clearly Japanese? The scene where the couple decide why Kira is the perfect alias is actually cringe-inducing. And why keep Ryuk’s name? If you’re adapting something, hell, just go with it: rename everyone and don’t half-ass anything! As far as the cries about whitewashing…decide for yourself. Personally, the views of Death Note’s claim to the controversial subject have been best described by Stanfield during a recent round of interviews (including the issue of casting an African-American as L). Check it out when you have a chance; the interview’s only a few days old as of this writing.
Now onto the content itself, as fans of the source material should be focused on this. I mean, are you a fan of the manga series as well as the anime? If so…yeah, let’s talk. First off, I’m going to give some credit to director Adam Wingard and the trio of screenwriters for slicing & dicing the majority of the original material into a 100-minute film. This is where my aforementioned situation of knowing the source beforehand falls into my lap. I know all about the history of Death Note, and I know I should accept the concept of the adaptation process. But man oh man, they missed out on some of the points that make Death Note unique. Transforming Light from a brilliant, calculating teenager to an emotional, fatally average teenager wasn’t the easiest thing to witness. The moment he first meets Ryuk is surprisingly banal. I get that the hands of the Death Note fall into non-adult hands, but the movie restricts the characters to what they are: teens are teens, and adults are adults. No one’s above their own emotions, and no one has any unique traits that make themselves stand out. The operators of the Death Note are stupid kids, and the people dedicated to finding them can’t keep their cool. What’s more concerning is that the cat-and-mouse relationship between Light and L that’s been the heart of all the versions out there is completely non-existent. They share just two scenes together, and any attempt for them figure each other out has been thrown out the window. The first instance, in the coffee shop, is a perfect example of how it feels like every single person behind the camera held a stopwatch. Forget building up characterization; we have to get this movie under two hours! Skip to the end, skip to the end. Even though Stanfield and Whigham give the best performances, none of the characters feel fleshed out, and with you have something like Death Note that’s all about the world-building through everyone’s eyes, you’re already doomed from the start.
Having said that…
One of the most interesting things about the beloved anime, for me, is how it flips a heavy switch. For me, it starts off as one of the best animes I’ve ever seen, and just like that, it goes from brilliant to completely unwatchable. And fans of the show know the exact moment it all goes south (don’t lie to yourself, you know). The Japanese films didn’t do the same, but they still couldn’t end it all on a decent note. While Netflix’s Death Note blows its chances to lay down that familiar foundation with flashes of uniqueness, it nearly recovers itself completely by the final act. This is when Wingard becomes Wingard. A friend of mine told me one time he felt that Wingard was a one-hit wonder with The Guest, and while I didn’t believe that, I’ll make no effort or apologies for saying that Blair Witch was a big step backwards for him. The man has shown us what he’s capable of, so to see a misstep like that was unsettling. Death Note isn’t his return to form — not by a long shot — but it’s him getting his footing back slowly. The movie certainly caught my attention as it got to a point where Wingard pretty much abandons any links from the source material and he creates a beat-the-clock situation. Flashes of a filmmaker who’s truly excited by where he’s at starts to come through, and by the end, his trademarks start shining through. He’s still got the odds working against him, including that script (it should be noted that it’s the first major film he’s made without writing partner Simon Barrett). Because of all of that, even when our characters have been reduced to their lowest points, Wingard decides to power through. It’s admirable to witness. It ends on a razor-sharp point, and I was intrigued.
Death Note ends up being a mixed bag filled with controversy, content issues, and a director’s last stand at the final hour (or in this case, half hour). I’m glad I saw it; I’m glad I stayed up late, and I’m very much surprised at myself that I had this much to say. Whether you’re a fan of the original or you know nothing about it, see if for yourself, of course. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get some sleep.