UK Release Date: 25th August 2017
Runtime: 99 minutes
Director: Adam Wingard
Writer: Charles Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides, Jeremy Slater
Starring: Nat Wolff, Margaret Qualley, LaKeith Stanfield, Willem Dafoe, Shea Whigham, Paul Nakauchi
Synopsis: A high schooler finds himself in possession of enormous power when he is handed a mysterious book. When he writes someone’s name on one of the pages, that person dies.
In the lead-up to the release of Adam Wingard’s interpretation of Tsugumi Ohba’s acclaimed manga and anime series, I was quietly optimistic. I saw people decry the film for whitewashing a property that predominantly featured an Asian cast by moving the setting to the United States, I saw avid fans of the series decrying small details being different to their beloved source material and even people questioning the purpose of the movie existing. After all, we already have three live action films, one TV series and even a musical based on the series.
I responded to these fears with hope that the movie would take the core concept of the series – a book given to the protagonist by a demon god of death that allows him to kill people by simply writing their name – and take it in a direction unique to its new setting. I hoped for the best from an interesting new cast of up and comers, a director with a great track record in Wingard and, of course, Willem Dafoe.
How naive of me. Death Note just fails to hit any of its marks and ends up a frustrating mess of a film, with some kernels of greatness that are buried under the weight of its own identity crisis.
The film follows Nat Wolff, best known for The Fault In Our Stars, as Light Turner – the loner high school student who finds the titular book. Goaded by the Shinigami Ryuk (Dafoe) and his new girlfriend Mia (Margaret Qualley), he begins a killing spree under the guise of a god-like identity called Kira, who punishes wrongdoers in a way the current system can’t. On top of this, Kira is being investigated by the police, including Light’s father (Shea Whigham) and the brilliant, enigmatic detective L (LaKeith Stanfield).
If you were reading that and thinking it sounds like too much plot, you’d be right. Death Note moves at a barrelling pace, barely giving the audience time to digest the rules of the book or the character motivations. It almost becomes farcical at points, such as when the incredibly important creation of the Kira identity and its rise to cult status is glossed over in a montage. By the time we see Stanfield enter the movie, it feels like we’re in the middle of a sequel to a movie we’ve never actually seen. Anyone unfamiliar with the source material is just going to be utterly confused by Death Note. It was only source knowledge that helped me skip some of the cognitive process needed to understand why people are doing things or why they’re even happening.
The performances across the board are mixed. Nat Wolff is nowhere near strong enough to deal with the material and this issue manifests in odd segments like the first meeting with Ryuuk, which results in Wolff screaming like a banshee in a way that feels comedic and at total odds with the tone of the film. Margaret Qualley does the best she can with the role Mia Sutton, but the lack of time provided for the audience to grasp her murky motivations fully hampers her performance.
Willem Dafoe is great as Ryuuk and is just having a lot of fun in the role, but the real standout is LaKeith Stanfield as L. Stanfield recently had a great small part in Get Out, but here he’s centre stage and lights up proceedings whenever he appears. His performance is full of interesting physicality and voice work that really sells the character without the need for much exposition. The movie does uproot some of his core values by the end in an attempt to emphasise a generic ‘we’re not so different, you and I’ message, but it just falls flat and betrays the character Stanfield had built with his performance.
While uneven performances and bad plotting contribute to the problems with Death Note, the real tragedy for me is how unwilling the movie is to actually use its setting. I defended the move to the US as a way to tell an interesting story in the modern context of tensions and divisions in that country, but it’s totally ignored to the point it feels disingenuous. Lastly, the film never really deals with the moral grey areas the original often revelled in. The movie isn’t obligated to do so, but it feels like it half-arses matters during some brief interactions with Light and L to the point I wonder why they even bothered bringing it up. But then again, I spent most of this film wondering why they bothered at all.
Pop or Poop?
There are parts of Death Note that work really well. The film boasts solid visuals and great performances by Stanfield and Defoe standout, but it suffers from a poor lead performance, bad plotting and a lack of a solid identity. This will not only upset fans of the series looking for a new take on the material, but also just confuse and bewilder those just wanting to watch a movie on Netflix.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.