Adapting a piece of work from one cultural context to another can be more than a bit difficult. While I’ve never seen the anime or read the manga this American version of Death Note is based on, I can still sympathize. Not only are the white washing concerns worthy of dubious thought, but there’s so much that can be lost in adapting a long form story into a 100 minute feature film effort. Add onto that a troubled decade-plus production history and Death Note seems like an outright and damn obvious example of lame adaptation in the making. Does it fall into some of those problems? Oh yes. Yes yes yes, it certainly does. Is it an entirely horrible experience? Well… not necessarily.
The biggest problem with this American Death Note on a purely narrative level is how rushed it all feels. Even without being aware of the long form narrative source material or the various writers involved, one can clearly tell that Death Note is trying hard to build its mythology and characters while also progressing them through what feels like a season’s worth of stories. It’s honestly kind of odd that Netflix of all places would release this as a feature film instead of trying to turn it into a bingeable series. It would help with the constraints of setting up this killer diary concept, the lead characters who are authentically whiny teenagers into something more compelling and the cultural fervor over the Kira God concept.
To his credit, Death Note director Adam Wingard makes the entire thing visually interesting. The bigger budget action moments aside, Wingard applies his usual penchant for neon glow lighting and visually unique ways of shooting conversations. The type of direction that made his smaller budget works The Guest and You’re Next so lively and entertaining. The elaborate death scenes have a sort of Final Destination quality to them, though they often seem unintentionally wacky and rather repetitive. Wingard’s visual shorthand often does more than the story itself can in terms of developing most of these characters. There’s a pivotal moment between our lead Light (Nat Wolff) and his newfound girlfriend Mia (Margaret Qualley) at a school dance that changes the course of all events afterward. In context of the story, it feels sudden. There’s been some set up for this, but the move feels like a dramatic crank up to 11 for little in story reasons that make sense. On its own though, there’s a visual context that shows more of a believable surprise, from the editing to each face to the blue lighting that hints at something awful for our characters up ahead.
Then again, Wingard also has the handicap of working with these lead actors. Nat Wolff as Light is a whiny brat of a lead that never really progresses. Death Note clearly wants to show us a progression to something larger by the ending, but we never get the idea that his use of the titular book is really anything more than something self serving. Light’s arc is set up as someone who uses the book starts out thinking about himself, then attempts to become vigilante justice that grows out of hand. Yet, we never quite get a handle on the cultural scope of his or Mia’s Kira God antics. Given Wolff’s hilariously awkward screams and petulant angry teen face at the start, one would hope some dimension would grow on him like moss on a tree. This doesn’t happen, making a big turn that the crux of the entire ending quite laughable. Qualley’s Mia isn’t given much either, suffering from the very rushed story that twists her around in such a variety of directions. At least she’s more tolerable than Light.
Honestly, of the entire cast Lakeith Stanfield‘s L is easily the highlight. With his constantly shifting physicality and mysterious backstory, he’s the more engaging character to follow. Just the way Stanfield breathes meticulous life to a character as uniquely emotionally shut off as L is quite stunning to watch. One almost wishes that Death Note was more from his perspective as he investigates this mysterious string of deaths like some sort of sugar heightened insomniac Sherlock Holmes. L is a great example of how a character may be alien and unrelatable, but still incredibly compelling. The demonic entity of Ryuk (voiced by Willem Dafoe and portrayed in the flesh by Jason Liles) is honestly quite intimidating when he initially shows up. Yet, he ultimately just becomes a source for exposition and temptation that Light doesn’t really need after a certain point. A devilish figure creeping over his shoulder that’s a creepy presence, but little else.
As to the uncomfortable issues of whitewashing, Death Note tries to integrate some of the Japanese roots into the story. L’s caretaker Watari (Paul Nakauchi) is a key presence during the second half and Kira is emphasized as a Japanese presence in the film’s Seattle setting that received praise for bringing justified death to criminals. Yet, these ideas in theory come to little in practice. If anything, these elements seem like further appropriation, one the characters are literally taking on. Unfortunately, there’s little potential satirical intent to offset that. It’s similar (though not quite as egregious) to the issues that happened earlier this year with Ghost in the Shell, who’s integration of the Japanese subplot only served to over complicate things further, to the point where they might as well have dropped the Japanese elements altogether unless they were going to have Japanese Americans in the lead roles or something. Instead, it’s just sort of… awkward.
Ultimately, Death Note is a mess. Cramming in so much detail into a 100 minute running time. It’s not without a few gory kills, memorable performances or thrilling visuals, but nothing really that memorable. For something with a premise as intriguing as killing via writing a name in a book, “forgettable” is pretty disappointing. Even as someone unfamiliar with the source material, the breakneck pacing of the story doesn’t allow much of an entry point for either the characters or the concept to really settle. We start right out the gate with a death in the first six minutes and only pause for exposition. There’s not a lot of room to breathe, leaving the film on a note that one could describe as deadly. A… Demise Record, if you will.
Rating: 2 Torn Out Pages Out of 5
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