'Death Note' - Review
Adapting Japanese works has always been hit or miss for Hollywood. Sometimes you’ll get the Godzilla (in-name-only) from 1998, which was a critical and commercial failure and in no way resembled the Godzilla we all know and love or you’ll get the 2014 Godzilla where the Big G is respectfully represented but the underlying metaphors of man meddling with nature are completely absent, which has always been a staple of the Japanese icon. And for every The Ring, there’s a One Missed Call. Death Note lives somewhere in between as being a decent adaptation but doesn’t carry the same weight and suspense as the original work.
Taking extreme liberties with Tsugumi Ohba's original work, Death Note is the story of Light: a teenage genius who spends his days doing other people’s homework for hard cash while getting beat up on the side by the school bully. One day, out of the sky falls a black notebook called the Death Note. With it, Light meets the death god Ryuk, an eight foot tall demon who sent the Death Note to Earth as a game to see what humans would do with its power. The power of the Death Note grants the writer the ability to kill anyone on Earth simply by writing a person’s name while envisioning their face. Light thinks nothing of it more than a dream and writes the name of the person who he feels deserves to die at that moment, which ends in a horrific scene. Realizing the bigger picture, Light believes he can use this Death Note to right the wrongs of society by taking out criminals the authorities would otherwise fail to punish. Joining him on his journey is his girlfriend Mia and together, they create a worldwide god named Kira, whose sole purpose is to give hope to the oppressed and punishment to the wicked. It isn’t long before the world’s greatest detective, L, is on to Light and Mia as a game of cat and mouse begins.
Death Note was off to a good start in the opening thirty minutes but at some point, the film forgot it needed to adapt volumes worth of manga into a single film so character development is thrown out the window, predictable twists are unveiled unconvincingly, and the time spent on what could have a deep moral discussion of the Death Note’s use is forgotten to fit within a one hundred minute running time. Now, I love myself some horror movie gore and this has some visually great deaths worthy of Final Destination but it’s undercut by what should be development time for Light, Mia, and L.
Light comes off like the Peter Parker everyman: glancing at his high school crush, intellectually gifted, and for some reason bullied by a one-note jackass. This could have been used to the film’s advantage by having him be the quintessential hero devolve into a villain but the filmmakers don’t follow through. Light sustains more of that anti-hero persona rather than straight out villain, which is good and bad. The good is that it gives you a protagonist to empathize with, but the bad is that it doesn’t explore what could happen to someone with a pure heart when given so much corrupting power and instead places another character on that villainous pedestal. Nat Wolff puts in a ho-hum performance, projecting more of a Shia Lebeouf take on the character than anything else, juggling comedy and seriousness throughout the film. One minute he’s comically screaming and the next he’s murdering hundreds of people, wildly shifting the tone while also making him not at all intimidating.
Margaret Qualley as Mia is more intimidating, often the puppet master behind Light’s decisions and adds an amount of gravitas missing from Nat Wolff’s performance. Her forceful manner on assessing and resolving situations is much different from Light’s and it’s all the better for it.
L is underutilized here and would have been better kept towards the final act of the film or left as a tease for a sequel. L has his trademark love of candy and antisocial quirks but his story arc is unearned as they never really delve into the darker history of his upbringing (they only talk about it in throwaway line), and he becomes unhinged quite fast for the most calm and collected detective. Lakeith Stanfield does a lot with what little he’s given, emoting solely through a mask and hood, and what he’s able to pull off with just his voice and eyes is tremendous, making the moment he reveals his full face all the more powerful.
Funny enough, Death Note visually resembles this year’s Power Rangers. The opening shots are full of dutch angles and there’s a very mall goth tone to it with a dark grey palette; however, the colors pick up as the film goes on. The opening credits are probably my favorite part of the film as it pays brilliant homage to John Carpenter’s The Thing. The death scenes are unexpectedly gruesome and are set up like Rube Goldberg scenarios straight out of Final Destination, but they’re few and far between as the movie does the majority of the deaths through montage sequences later. The soundtrack by Atticus Ross is fitting and the licensed songs that play over certain scenes accentuate them very well.
The highlight by far is Willem Dafoe as the death god Ryuk. Dafoe’s low gravelly voice full of whimsy, including his memorable Green Goblin cackle from Spider-Man, make this performance the best part of the film but the problem with it is its just that: cackling. Ryuk will say something funny or clever in a scene and will then cackle. Rinse, repeat. Ryuk himself looks fantastic, albeit some minor complaints about the CGI on the face but the costume looks great and the way he’s presented in scenes whether it be out of focus or behind tinted glass with his yellow eyes showing through are absolutely haunting.
Death Note isn’t horrible nor is it a film to look to as a representation of faithful adaptations, but it is a decent start to what I hope becomes an ongoing trend of Netflix adaptations that take liberties with the original work rather than try to copy it entirely (Fingers crossed for a Berserk series down the road). It’s missing the moral weight and suspense of the original series and the performances are little more than average; however, there is a standout performance as well as some standout visuals. The good news is that at least this isn’t Dragonball: Evolution.