THE STORYBased on the famous Japanese manga written by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, Death Note follows a high school student who comes across a supernatural notebook, realizing it holds within it a great power; if the owner inscribes someone’s name into it while picturing their face, he or she will die. Intoxicated with his new godlike abilities, the young man begins to kill those he deems unworthy of life.
THE CAST – Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield, Margaret Qualley, Shea Whigham, Paul Nakauchi, Jason Liles & Willem Dafoe
THE TEAM – Adam Winged (Director), Charles Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides & Jeremy Slater
THE RUNNING TIME – 100 Minutes
By Matthew G.
What would you do if you were handed a notebook with the power to kill anyone you wanted in any way you wanted? Would you use it at all? If you used it, whom would you target? Why would you target those specific people? All of these questions sit at the center of “Death Note.” Or, more accurately, they sit at the center of the Japanese manga and anime series from which this film is adapted. The film, on the other hand, squanders its potential in favor of a heap of blandness and stupidity that wastes a handful of bright spots.
Light Turner (Nat Wolff) is a high school student who gets by day to day, wondering why the world isn’t fair. His mother was murdered, but the man who did it escaped punishment because of family connections. However, when Light discovers the notebook of a death god named Ryuk (voice of Willem Dafoe), he’s given the chance to change the world as he sees fit. Prompted by vengeance and the seductive charms of his classmate Mia (Margaret Qualley), Light adopts the name “Kira” and sets on a quest that pits his a perverted sense of justice and self-righteous legalism against the brilliant eccentricities of “L” (Lakeith Stanfield), the world’s greatest detective.
When I heard that “Death Note” was being adapted into a film, I felt a mixture of concern and curiosity. It’s a story that has a rich array of interesting themes to examine through the lens of intriguing characters engaged in a mesmerizing battle of wits. Unfortunately, the end result contains almost none of that potential. It almost takes a certain level of talent to reduce a profoundly intelligent, charmingly charismatic, and ridiculously clever character into something boring and lackluster. Light’s supposed to be a smart individual if the other characters are to be believed. Yet, very little of what he does is inventive or astute. His whole motivation can be narrowed down to vengeance, followed by a desire for sex. Mix in the ability to kill anyone he wants, and what we’re left with is a power hungry, libidinous teenager, who has no charisma or charm. While the writing lets Light down, Nat Wolff also doesn’t help things. His performance, not to mention his absurd hair, makes the character come across as a whiny and nebbish doofus, rather than a suave, confident, and witty tactician.
What works so much better in terms of casting and character is Willem Dafoe as the death god Ryuk. Dafoe infuses a level of menace and amusement into things whenever he’s on screen. Dafoe’s voice combines well with Jason Liles doing motion capture to generate an excellent performance that is easily the best part of the film. The filmmakers also wisely chose to keep Ryuk concealed in shadows for a fair bit of the film. Not only does this save money on the CGI used to render him, it also makes him seem more threatening. The CGI itself is fairly decent. It’s not up to par with the best work today, but it’s a drastic leap forward from the live-action “Death Note” films that were made in Japan in 2007 and 2008. I also feel that Lakeith Stanfield acquits himself well as L. L is an oddball whose quirky mannerisms hide his brilliance. Some may see the performance as too goofy or over the top. But, Stanfield captures the oddity of his character fairly well on the whole.
Where “Death Note” ultimately falls off a cliff is in its writing. The characters overall are certainly written very thinly. The script strips away a lot of the layered nuance and focuses on what may as well be the delusional power fantasies of a 13 year old writing in his journal. While it’s true that the manga and anime also were built on such power fantasies, they were also written as elaborate traps and schemes where Light would make a clever move, only to be countered by an equally devious plot from L, and so on throughout the series. This films ditches all that in favor of a series of actions that just happen because the plot demands they happen and fills in the gaps with flippant quips and trite moral philosophizing to try and justify its failings by making its serial killer protagonist more sympathetic. It’s a recipe for disaster.
I feel bad for director Adam Wingard. He’s a talented artist who is capable of crafting exacting films like “The Guest” and “You’re Next” that build strong tension and atmosphere. What “Death Note” provides is more of a carnival with half the rides broken. He tries to corral the script’s disastrous messiness into something that’s watchable, but even the best directors can’t turn a rotten apple into a ripe piece of fruit. There’s no tension and very little creativity on screen outside of Dafoe’s engaging effort and a solid musical score by Atticus and Leopold Ross that is ultimately wasted. The film even has the audacity to have a massive cliffhanger ending that ruins what it’s been building up to and begs for a sequel that it doesn’t deserve.
In the end, “Death Note” doesn’t really work as a standalone film or as an adaptation of the popular manga/anime series. The writing is highly dumb, reducing interesting characters and a solidly tense mind game into a childish and dull affair that can’t engage its audience. People who’ve never read the manga or seen the anime won’t be captured by the film. Fans of the manga and anime will be upset either because the film deviates so much from the source material or because the deviations are so disrespectful to the source material. While there are some good points in the form of Willem Dafoe and the musical score, “Death Note” is a sloppy mess that I can’t recommend.
As a final side note: Yes, I’ve seen the anime. Yes, I like the anime. The movie still isn’t good or worth recommending. Go watch the anime or go read the manga instead.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Good performances from Lakeith Stanfield and Willem Dafoe. Well done and effective musical score.
THE BAD – An exceptionally dumb story that butchers its source material, a poor lead performance from the protagonist, thinly written characters, terrible cliffhanger ending.
THE FINAL SCORE – 3/10