A flawed take on the beloved manga.
Netflix held an advance screening of Death Note at San Diego Comic-Con 2017. The movie premieres on Netflix on August 25.
Death Note is one of the most popular manga series in the world, and it has already been adapted as an anime series and as a live-action movie in Japan. Director Adam Wingard (Blair Witch, You’re Next) took the helm of the American adaptation, which is coming to Netflix next month. At Comic-Con, Wingard expressed his hope and belief that his movie would buck the trend of low-quality American anime remakes. However, he only partially succeeds.
The movie is an extremely condensed version of the battle of wills between the keeper of the Death Note, Light Turner, and L, a police detective determined to unmask Light as the serial killer known as Kira. With the Death Note, Light can kill anyone as long as he knows their face and their name. For most of the movie, L hides both from his target. Unfortunately, both of the leading actors are the biggest weakness in this film. While Nat Wolff is only 22, he seems much older than the teenager he portrays on screen and his goofy facial expressions undercut Light’s dramatic moments. Similarly, Lakeith Stanfield’s antics as L are so over-the-top that they border on parody. It’s incredibly difficult to take either man seriously in their respective roles.
Fortunately, Wingard nailed the casting of Willem Dafoe as the voice of Ryuk, the demon who sent the Death Note to Light. Dafoe absolutely devours the role and chews the surrounding scenery, but he is so entertaining that he only enhances the film. Wingard wisely kept most of Ryuk’s appearances in shadows, and Ryuk’s creepy visage gave him a unique presence in the movie. He really did look like a manga demon who came to life.
The new Death Note adaptation also greatly improved upon Misa’s story in the film. For this version, the character is called Mia, and she’s played by The Leftovers’ Margaret Qualley. This time, she is more of a true partner to Light in his quest to remake the world through his Death Note, and she goes even further than he does. Mia isn’t passive and at times her feelings for Light are more ambiguous than one-sided. Mia chooses her own fate, even if it leaves death and destruction in her wake,
Seasoned performers like Paul Nakauchi and Shea Whigham brought dignity and life to their supporting roles as as L’s assistant, Watari, and Light’s father, James Turner, respectively. While we don’t get enough scenes to fully buy into L’s relationship with Watari, the scenes between Light and James successfully build a father and son bond between them.
The tone of the movie is uneven at times, and even Light expresses incredulity when he is told about L’s backstory and the ridiculous way that his true name has been hidden. But the story doesn’t quite live in a place where the real and the unreal come together. Wingard does make a few nods to Light’s growing influence as Kira, but those aspects seem far removed from the major beats of the story. That said, the words “Lord Kira” play into the film’s funniest scene, but to say more would be too much of a spoiler.
This is not a one-to-one adaptation of the manga, and the movie only offers partial closure for the story, perhaps leaving the door open for a potential sequel. What’s frustrating is that with better lead performers and a tighter script, Wingard could have made a great adaptation. Instead it settles when it should have soared.