Well, they finally did it. An American adaptation of Death Note, one of the most beloved anime and manga titles to come out of Japan this side of the 21st century. It was only a matter of time before Tsugumi Ohba’s harrowing psychological mind-screw was given the remake treatment by the good ole U.S. of A. And, despite the snarky title for this review, and the tidal wave of negativity sweeping the interwebs over this film, I find that it may not quite be the trainwreck some of its more vocal detractors insist it is. But, before my name ends up in the pages of a dark notebook in a shadowy room somewhere, let’s just say that it’s not a masterpiece either. Contrary to the gospel of the surging masses, the truth is more likely somewhere in between. Which – fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your perspective – puts it near the top of the pile of quality anime adaptations.
The Death Note anime ranks among my favorites of the medium. Stylish, smart, incredibly detailed and meticulous without ever losing its spark of fun, despite some pretty grizzly subject-matter. The story of a young man who discovers a supernatural book with the power to kill anyone whose name is written within its pages as long as the writer can picture their face. Add the eccentric genius investigator bent upon hunting him down and you’ve got the makings of a truly riveting tale. The Netflix adaptation takes this plot and (no surprise here) simplifies the everloving crap out of it.
That’s not a criticism. At least not in and of itself. There’s no way any one film could match the complexity of a saga that was intended to be consumed across months, if not years of one’s life. Anyone walking into this thing expecting to see Rem or Mello, characters who wouldn’t have a part in the plot until the second half of its source material, really were setting themselves up for disappointment. Director Adam Wingard (the horror-meister behind low-budget sleepers like You’re Next and the excellent The Guest) had to economize his space. Take inspiration from the elements that would make up a solid individual movie and reserve the rest for whatever, if anything, comes next. I understood and supported this idea wholeheartedly. I just didn’t think they’d economize so much that I’d expect to see it hanging off the clearance rack at Wal-Mart.
A story of this nature could easily take up two hours of real estate, but the filmmakers elected to bring this one in at a lean hour and a half, plus credits. Which would be fine if we were dealing with your basic slasher flick, with few complicated developments or interesting character breakdowns. But the film as it is keeps introducing new concepts that you’d think would be pretty freaking important that the viewer get a firm grasp on, to say nothing of the motivations of all the players involved in such an elaborate cat-and-mouse game.
The oddly-named teen Light Turner (Nat Wolf) spends his days helping the lazy and less intelligent of his ilk cheat on their schoolwork, we assume, not particularly pleased with the life he leads. Until the Death Note literally falls out of the sky, landing into his possession. After he’s sent to detention for his cheating scheme, the boring lead is introduced to the real star of this film, the amoral god of death, Ryuk (played masterfully by the rapturous, cackling Willem Dafoe). After an embarrassing sequence where Light nearly shits himself in fear of this smirking monster, Ryuk finally gets him to settle down long enough to explain the power he now possesses. A quick demonstration of the book’s abilities leads to blood-spattered consequences and some truly horrific notions about what to do next.
Now, in a better story, the implications of a weapon that can remotely kill anyone in the world in the hands of a bright but ultimately deluded child could be seriously thought-provoking. Instead, it’s mostly just an excuse to mangle faces, sever limbs, and generally just destroy people in graphic ways for a while before even more interesting characters can divert our attention.
In his attempts to catch the eye of his love interest, somehow guessing that she’d be cool with this, Light takes about 0.4 seconds to blurt out his new secret to her in the middle of gym class. Margaret Qualley plays Mia, the unattainable girl so badass she smokes while simultaneously doing stunts with her cheerleading squad. And, while it’s clearly over-the-top and (maybe not-so-clearly, at times) meant to make you laugh, her strangely accepting and even eager attitude toward killing people according to their flighty whims proves to be a pretty interesting bit.
Light’s father is played by Shea Whigham, the most hard-working man whose name you never knew but was in everything you’ve ever seen, twice. He held it down as a damaged soldier in this year’s Kong: Skull Island. He whipped his men into shape as the leading SSR Agent in the underrated Marvel’s Agent Carter. And now, he shouts and grimaces his way through Death Note as the almost paradoxically American cop dad who’s just trying to make it through the day in these trying times. The man is a treasure, and you will remember him, dammit.
But the most memorable of all, in my estimation, is Lakeith Stanfield (from the wonderful Get Out), as the mysterious investigator whose true name remains unknown. This eccentric wunderkind is what happens when you crossbreed Sherlock Holmes with Powder and give him an awkward manservant that has to remind him that maybe sleeping from time to time would be a reasonable thing to do. Stanfield infuses the brilliant sweet-toothed sleuth with a charmingly off-kilter attitude, confident to a fault, but only because he’s earned the street cred. It’s only when confronted with a situation that defies all logic that he starts to crumble, and the wrinkles behind his identity-concealing mask begin to show.
His best scene is undoubtedly when he first confronts the man he suspects is behind the strange killings, traversing effortlessly across a range of emotions. From smooth and collected, to nervous and uncertain, and finally arriving at something much more unhinged. If more of the film had this kind of energy behind it, with the specter of the great Ryuk chilling in the background, eyes alight with a demonic, voyeuristic glow, then this would be a very different review. Sadly, things go a little off the rails for a while.
Supposing you were to ask me if the plot made complete sense, even after watching the movie twice, I’d honestly have to tell you that I wasn’t sure. It’s not because I wasn’t paying attention, but because the film itself just doesn’t provide the kind of road map I needed to actually want to follow every turn of the plot. Each time something interesting happened, it felt like you could have taken another five to ten minutes to explore it, and instead we just hopscotch onto the next thing.That goes both for the mechanics of the narrative (plus the many, many insane rules baked into the mythology of the Note) and also for the characters themselves, who are all just barely developed enough for you to grasp what everyone means to each other, but not always enough to care. This is especially problematic when Watari (Paul Nakauchi) is threatened by one of Light’s schemes, and the film expects us to be compelled by L’s bitter distress over potentially losing his right-hand dude. Well, maybe I would have, if I’d felt anything between them during the twelve seconds committed to establishing their relationship.
It’s not like I’m asking for a six-hour film, just a two-hour one.
I will say that I found the closing minutes to be some of the most inspired moments of the movie. The dilemma faced by a crazed man, seeking some semblance of retribution in the face of such despair. The quiet revelation of carefully-laid acts of villainy. Chilling admissions and the haunting possibilities of what may happen next. And the last line. I mean, come on. What fan doesn’t love that last line?
Don’t answer that. The truth is, there’s a good number of people who were going to hate this film no matter what it was like. The fact that it exists at all was sin enough to damn it. I can’t respond to that crowd. I can only say that I sympathize with those who champion ethnic diversity, while also disagreeing that this film had to feature an all Japanese cast because of its source material. Especially seeing as how Japan already has its movie adaptation for this title. Five of them, actually.
That’s not counting the live-action TV series, the animated TV series, and the original comic upon which they all are based. Suffice it to say, there’s an assload of Death Note out there for fans to gorge on, if that’s your jam. At the same time, if this project did feature a Japanese actor in the lead role, it would be a worthy step for American film in general, as there are so few key roles given to actors of Asian descent overall. I’m just not sure if this particular role, of a murderous teen who evades justice at every opportunity, absolutely required an Asian face. I’d just like to see more Asian faces on my screen, period, and that’s probably not Death Note’s responsibility alone.
If Death Note should be criticized, let it be on its own terms. And there is a significant list that can be laid at its feet. Adam Wingard’s often disarming comedy in the face of the macabre seems out of place in this film, bouncing the tone off of every wall, never quite settling long enough to make it sing. Our lead character, despite the whole story orbiting him and his journey, is sadly the least interesting of the bunch. And as the plot unfolds before me, I can’t help but feel like I’m watching some sort of abridged version of it. The kind you’d imagine getting on syndicated television years ago, except with a lot more blood and cussing. I could have sworn there were some monkey-fighting snakes in there somewhere, but I guess those didn’t make the final cut?
In the final analysis, Death Note is a seriously imperfect film that I enjoyed for its splendid imagery, the rare off-beat character moments, and of course, the great Ryuk. Maybe this would have fared better with a series format rather than a contained cinematic experience. Or maybe it’s better that they got out while the getting was good, leaving no time for any of this rich material to get contorted beyond repair.
If the Netflix gods see fit to bless (or perhaps punish) us with a sequel, I guess we’ll find out.