Ever since I saw the original anime back in college, I’ve been a fan of Death Note and what it can inspire. It’s not just the story of a serial killer with a supernatural twist. It’s also the gripping tale of two brilliant minds–a serial killer and a reclusive detective–matching wits from beginning to end, each one fighting for their own ideal of “justice” in an otherwise gruesome world.
I just wish someone had told all of this to the creative team behind the live-action adaptation that came out this year.
Set in modern-day Seattle, this Netflix Original film follows high school students Light and Mia, who come across a notebook with the power to kill anyone whose name is written down. In the span of 3 minutes (in movie time), Light goes from an angsty teen to the Angel of Death, delivering cold justice to hundreds of criminals and terrorists around the world from the comfort of his bedroom. This, of course, attracts the attention of Ryuk, the death god who “dropped” the book into the human world, and L, the mysterious detective who wants to stop the murderous “Kira” at all costs.
This isn’t the Light Yagami some viewers might remember from the original manga and anime. Light Taylor (played by Nat Wolff) isn’t a sociopath masquerading as a normal person. He’s just a kid. A slightly stuck-up kid, but he doesn’t have his anime counterpart’s sense of vision or ruthless edge. For that, we get Mia Sutton (played by Margaret Qualley), who at first seems to be nothing more than his prerequisite love interest, but she later turns out to have all the ruthlessness that Light didn’t have from the start. But I guess it’s better than trying to adapt the obsessive stalker Misa Amane, right?
Honestly, what saves this movie for me (in small doses) are Ryuk and L. Willem Dafoe’s voice acting and the production’s CGI nail the creeping horror that is Ryuk, although here he’s less vocal about giving Light the notebook because he’s “bored.” He honestly spends more time explaining the rules and making not-so-subtle threats to Light’s existence. Meanwhile, Lakeith Stanfield is a stellar performance as L. Appearing about 30 minutes into the film, L is dynamic and eccentric in all the right ways. He becomes the new center of the story in a way that the Kira duo never quite pull off. It’s less “cat-and-mouse” and more “cat chasing a pair of mice who seem half-dead already.”
Speaking of half-dead, let’s talk about the performances. Everyone in this film, apart from Light’s father and L, are mostly delivering whispery dialogue and a lot of cliche lines. There’s no real menace to half the time spent on Light and Mia’s actions. I honestly would never have expected L to be the one who emotes the most in this story, but there we are.
The movie also seems to have a tonal problem. It can’t quite decide if it’s dramatic or melodramatic and verging on farcical. One minute, we’re watching Light sketch out a plan to block L’s latest move. The next, we’re seeing car chases set to a weirdly out-of-place Eighties pop ballad. And for some reason, the deaths committed by Kira in this story never feel chilling. Given all the gore and over-the-top bloodsplatter, it’s almost comical. Like Sam Peckinpah or Robert Rodriguez were guest directors.
I’ll admit that there were some few precious moments when I actually enjoyed the film’s visuals or its casting decisions (like getting Paul Nakauchi to play Watari, for instance). But half the time, I was expecting something deeper, something raw and cerebral. Instead, this is Death Note mixed with high school drama, with a little bit of teenage Bonnie and Clyde.
The live-action film Death Note is currently available on Netflix.
Bibliography: Death Note (Netflix Original film). Based on the manga by by Tsugumi Ohba (story)and Takeshi Obata. Directed by Adam Wingard. Produced by Masi Oka, Roy Lee, Dan Lin, and Jason Hoffs. Screenplay by Charles Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides, and Jeremy Slater. Perf. Nat Wolff, Margaret Qualley, Lakeith Stanfield, Paul Nakauchi, Shea Whigham, and Willem Dafoe. Vertigo Entertainment, Witten Pictures, Lin Pictures, Viz Productions. Netflix (US distributor). Original release date: August 25, 2017.