Director: Adam Wingard
Starring: Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield, Margaret Qualley, Shea Whigham, Willem Dafoe, Paul Nakauchi
“Shall we begin?”
An adaptation long in the making, it fell to Netflix to make Death Note a reality.
Not being familiar with the original source material (other than a quick read through its story) makes it easier to review the movie without the need for constant comparisons, the need to cross-check the quality or to nitpick at the potential amendments to the small details that spawned the original.
Whatever the case, Death Note still isn’t great.
Light Turner (Wolff), whilst lurking around at cheerleading practice, receives a strange gift from the sky – a tome titled ‘Death Note’. Old and weathered looking, the book is packed full of rules to follow, but the key rule is ‘picture someone’s face, write their name in the book and the manner in which they die’ and hey presto – they die. A non-negotiable extra is the presence of the malevolent death god Ryuk (Dafoe), who appears to Light each time he decides to put death to paper. Light’s classmate and cheerleader friend, Mia Sutton (Qualley), gets wind of the book from being around Light and wants in on the act.
Deciding to use the power they have been gifted for the good of the world, Light and Mia set about offing the world’s most dangerous criminals/degenerates – all under the delighted, ever-watchful eye of Ryuk. The world takes note of the spree with each killing celebrated as honourable and virtuous, with Light and Mia eventually signing off each murder under the pseudonym ‘Kira’. However, their crusade catches the attention of the mysterious, candy-gobbling L (Stanfield), a detective who has previous with the FBI. With his crack team in place, including Light’s father and police chief James (Whigham), L begins the meticulous search for the now-messianic Kira.
Tackling a task as large as Death Note seemed to be an unenviable task, and with early accusations of white-washing plus large amendments from the source material, Adam Wingard had it tough from the start. The key issue with Death Note is the fact it is tonally a mess, there’s so much happening and so much crammed in that the movie feels uneven. The character of L was at odds with the rest of the cast, there’s a weird romantic angle pasted in, quick elements introduced depicting Kira as a God (all without any real explanation) and at times, the movie feels like a 90’s Goosebumps TV episode. There are some nice shots of moody, neon-lit diners and the grubby cityscape, but they become buried in the directing missteps.
The book itself is a mystical, dangerous element which is never really utilised. By that I mean to say that the immense power of the tome was never expanded on or explored in any great detail which is disappointing as the book lends its name to the title of the movie…Similarly, what is it with Netflix and under-utilizing Willem Dafoe?! His Ryuk character is deliciously shady, evil with a wicked sense of humour but makes fleeting, cackling appearances throughout. Many times, less is more, but not in this case.
The rest of the cast are admirable in their performances and I enjoyed Whigham’s role as the police chief and conflicted father. Lakeith Stanfield as L did not capture my attention at first, but he became more tolerable as the movie went along. However, his candy eating obsession was terrible for the fact that his constant chomping and smacking of his chops led me to fantasize about tearing his throat out. Wolff was OK in the lead role (dodgy screaming aside) and whilst being every bit as captivating as you’d expect, Qualley’s only real involvement in the movie is to further convolute it – actually, her key contribution is to hammer home the movie's message: spread death, get laid.
The entire premise I think is incredible, the idea of the Death Note and every morsel of wicked power that it possesses and it’s a shame that the movie falters as it does. There’s a lot of potential to be had and so much that is missed. The cat-and-mouse game between Light and L is devoid of tension and is muddied by the addition of Mia and L’s cohort Watari (Nakauchi) and what should have been the centrepiece of the movie just fizzled out. Maybe it’s due to having to reduce so much source material into a two-hour runtime, maybe it’s just bad writing (maybe, probably it’s both) but whilst watching Death Note it became apparent that a very good movie lay underneath the skin of what I was viewing. The conclusion is infuriatingly disappointing, especially the circumstances surrounding L and his U-turn from returning home. The movie is clearly set up for a sequel, but how many people will be clamouring?
Far more negative than positive, Death Note is a frustrating case of ‘what if?’ – What if the movie had been longer, would it have been able to include much-needed exposition to expand and further the story? Would it have really made that much of a difference? We’ll never know in this iteration, and all we’re left with is disappointment.
September 21st 2017