Based on the Japanese manga written by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, Death Note is about high school student Light Turner (Nat Wolff) who discovers a notebook that has magical powers. When he writes someones name in the notebook while picturing that person’s face, that person will die. Playing God, Light is now drunk on power and starts killing people he believes do not deserve to live.
In recent years Adam Wingard has made a name for himself with B-movies such as You’re Next and The Guest, with both being destined to be cult classics down the road. His newest film is based off of the popular manga series of the same name with this adaptation being set in the US instead of Japan. Similar to this year’s Ghost in the Shell, the film has been accused of whitewashing, attempting to Americanize the story and its characters as much as possible. The root of the story is intriguing enough to warrant a new portrayal of the source material and seemed like a reasonable decision by Netflix.
Wingard is known for his campy horror and twisted comedy, so it seemed like this project had potential to be a match made in heaven. With the rain soaked Seattle serving as the prime setting the film is over-stylized in the best ways possible. Combining his trademark synth score (composed by Atticus and Leopold Ross) with the reflections shots of the slick Seattle roads, the visual storytelling works well here to help establish a location. Technically speaking the film does a lot of things right to show how a manga property could be portrayed in live action. The CG effects on Ryuk for the most part mesh well with the live action actors though when he looms in the shadows he’s more intimidating.
What holds Death Note back from being a good adaptation is the fact that the mythology of the Death Note book is rarely explored. Within the first 20 minutes so much happens without much explanation. Fans of the manga will have a better understanding of course but it’s the casual Netflix customer that might have a hard time sitting through this film. The book itself offers up so much mystery but the script insists on scanning through the material and getting to the gruesome deaths. Even when carnage ensues the deaths are never earned and seem lazily executed. There’s not much thrill with the story as the lead character we’re following is quite boring as very little character progression is ever made. Not all leads have to be heroes, actually quite the opposite but here there isn’t anything from Light Turner that is gonna make the viewer sit up and take notice.
Most of the characters in Death Note fall victim to a lackluster script that anchors the film down. Nat Wolff is an up and coming actor that has done great work in other films such as The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns, but here he is badly miscast. He’s not able to convey the angst of an outsider in high school and we’re never convinced of the decisions he makes. His demeanour is inconsistent to the story and never draws the audience in. Margaret Qualley, Keith Stanfield, and Shea Whigham all do solid work despite not being able to flex all their acting chops. The notable performance comes from Willem Dafoe as he does performance capture for the demonic god Ryuk. Threatening Light with his crackling voice, Dafoe’s voice work is one of the more memorable parts of this meandering tale.
With a talented director behind the camera and an ensemble of credible actors in front, Death Note had the potential to win over old fans as well as bring in new fans. Unfortunately, due to a hollow script, many fans will ask themselves where the rest of the story went. The film isn’t able to take advantage of the source material as it stumbles out of the gate with limited knowledge of the hellish book. Fans of Wingard will be satisfied with the directors usual tropes but the majority of the die hard Death Note fans will forget this and fall back on the manga.