Death Note (2017)
Starring Nat Wolff, Margaret Qualley, Lakeith Stanfield, Shea Whigham, Willem Dafoe
Directed by Adam Wingard
Much like video game films, anime-to-live action adaptations rarely work well. This can be the result of failure to create the right kind of atmosphere, an inability to transition over the complex undertones that run throughout a series, or it could simply be that the overall concept is misunderstood and we’re left with a film that is incapable of capturing what made the original so magical. Luckily, Adam Wingard’s Death Note, which premiered today on Netflix, takes the core concept of Tsugumi Ohba’s story and gives it an adaptation that is gleefully anarchic, shockingly violent, and unabashedly entertaining.
The story is rather simple. Light Turner (Wolff) is a high school student who is gifted by the heavens the Death Note, a book that will summon a demon named Ryuk (Dafoe), who will kill anyone whose full name is written into it. Oh, and you have to write a method of execution, or else it becomes a dealer’s choice scenario and that may not end well for anyone. At first reluctant with his newfound power, Turner really begins exploring the possibilities when he begins dating Mia (Qualley), who encourages his vision of a world free from evil. However, some law enforcement officials don’t take too kindly to their procedures being leapt over, so an investigation ensues and Light has to find a way out of his precarious predicament.
If you’re a diehard fan of the anime series, I’m sure you’ll be able to find countless things about the film that don’t sit well with you or stray from the source material. That being said, this film was made for a new audience and many of its themes transcend Japanese or American culture, resulting in something that touches upon universal experiences. The film tackles themes of bullying and our desire to see those who perpetrate it be put to justice. It touches upon grief of a loved one dying and how that can alter who we are as a person. It focuses heavily on things we would do for those we love, their very presence spurring us to try new and potentially dangerous (read: stupid) things. These are universally shared experiences that people globally experience.
Light’s journey into the darker side of what life has to offer, in a strange way, makes sense. While his background is given the bare minimum of attention, it’s enough to make it clear why he has a problem with how authority works and how law enforcement officials operate. Furthermore, the lack of support from his father, his teachers, and his peers puts Light in a position where he feels like he’s got no one to turn to. That’s why the sudden power that the Death Note offers seems so irresistible and delicious. While written a bit ham-handed, his journey going from disbeliever to the Death God Kira – the pseudonym that Light has given to his seemingly omniscient vigilante persona – is easily followed and doesn’t really leave any questions as to motive.
One of the great strengths of the film is the music, with both licensed tracks and the original score, courtesy of Atticus Ross and Leopold Ross, elevating scenes with thrills, adrenaline, and electric glee. Additionally, the performances are solid across the board with Lakeith Stanfield’s detective L almost hysterically going over the top. Who leaps onto a stool and crouches like a bird of prey?! A special nod also needs to be given to Willem Dafoe, whose voice performance of Ryuk is absolutely perfect.
Wingard is able to navigate through one scene after another with a crisp tightness that moves the story at a snappy pace. However, it does feel like the moral issues that should have been given the greatest attention were pushed to the side for a more high school drama focus. The film could’ve spent time on Light and Mia’s god-like power and the implications of taking lives at will, but instead the majority of their killing spree takes place in the first act and is done with careless abandon. However, the crumbling of their relationship is given far more time and attention, which makes sense as we’re watching these two, but it ends up feeling like they don’t have much depth.
The rules of the book are also drawn upon at random. Every time something comes up, there’s a new rule that magically relates to the topic at hand. While I realize that the anime series often pulled this trick, it had dozens of episodes upon which it could expand on the rules and the implications that they offered. Here, we have 100 minutes in which Wingard and Co. have to tell a full story that feels satisfying. Do they succeed in that regard? Look, it’s well made and I found it to be extremely entertaining. But I enjoyed it like a Taco Bell burrito versus going to a really nice Mexican restaurant and ordering something that will take 15-20 minutes to get to me. The former is quick, accessible, and gives me what I want. The latter will fill me just the same; but I’ll appreciate it far more because of the time it took, the better ingredients, and the complexity of flavors that Taco Bell simply lacks.
At the end of the day, you could do FAR worse than spend some time with Death Note. It’s quite gory, never has a dull moment, gets into the action quickly, and features some fantastic music. But the film never goes into the deeper, more fascinating concepts that it could’ve tackled, which feels like a missed opportunity.