In March 2017, Netflix announced an undoubtedly expensive deal to co-finance and produce four more films from Adam Sandler, who is a “comedian” according to Wikipedia, that same site every science teacher tells you not to use as a source for homework. Now that we’re in August however, I can’t help but feel that the streaming giant may be having doubts however, as they’ve clearly found a cheaper and far more effective original comedy: Death Note, directed by Adam Wingard.
To be honest, while I enjoyed it in my youth, the original manga by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata was definitely not a prize turkey when re-reading as an adult. On reflection, it struck me as an edgy fever dream enjoyed by moody teens struggling to find their place in a world they think they’ve got figured out. Putting the hyperbole aside for a moment though (I promise it’ll be brief), Ohba and Obata were at least able to craft a compelling and convincing game of cat-and-mouse between two clearly gifted minds, spilling across a minefield of moral grey that slowly and satisfyingly faded into a more distinct black and white. Wingard’s adaptation however? Well, it kept the moody teen edgy fever dream part, but just about nothing else.
Yagami Turner (Nat Wolff) is a sullen faced high school student who, after speaking his first line of dialogue, is fortunately smacked across the face – perhaps the only improvement over the original manga. With the titular notebook falling from the sky before he even opens his mouth, all we know about this Light before that point is that he finishes other peoples’ homework for money – a far cry from the honour student of the source material.
Busted for the aforementioned offence, Light is conveniently the only student serving detention when the room is trashed by the arrival of death god Ryuk (Willem Dafoe). Stripped of the amusing personality from the manga, Ryuk is left a towering, sinister figure who uncharacteristically pressures Light into first using the Death Note – a direct contrast to the impartial observer role he played in the source material. Dafoe delivers his few lines with a wonderfully frightening touch (easily the best acting in the film), but is criminally underutilised and while a fascinating character in his own right, is not the Ryuk manga or anime fans may be hoping for.
Speaking of Light’s use of the Death Note, can we take a moment to laugh at how stupidly convoluted even the very first death is? Being the edgelord that he is, Light decides the most fitting punishment for a mere high school bully is freakin’ decapitation – which transpires through a sequence that borders on parody, starting with a split shopping bag and ending with a van’s overhead ladder slicing a jock’s head in two. We get it Wingard, you’re known for horror, but there’s no need to turn this into Final Destination. Another involves a slow motion shot of men joining each other for a dramatic walk through a building like a boy band video, before they drop off a roof. Seriously Adam Wingard, are you trying to make this a comedy?
In the early stages of the original manga, Light quickly displays his analytical abilities by testing the limitations of the Death Note’s influence; a process sorely missed in this adaptation, in favour of Light simply reading everything from the Death Note’s rules. I guess modern education really is now more about repetition than free thought these days?
What truly disturbs me about this adaptation however, is that Wingard’s Death Note isn’t a story of a bright, well-meaning kid getting caught up in a downward spiral – because he’s already right at the bottom from the start. Not long after his first brutal murder, Light takes pleasure in using the gory details to flirt with Mia Sutton (Margaret Qualley), who tries to be the boring and overused “not your average girl” rebel cliché but instead, comes across as an absolute psychopath. There’s even a montage flashing between shots of them making love and finding new victims, as well as a casual reference to a desire for sitting back and chilling with popcorn while killing criminals. Light doesn’t represent a moral extreme in this movie; he and Mia are just utterly fucked up and irredeemable characters – but can you really expect subtlety from a director known for outlandish horror films?
What makes this even worse, is the portrayal of L (Keith Stanfield). Stanfield is strong and convincing in the role, but unfortunately nothing can save the material he’s given. The most of L’s trademark eccentricity we see are his irregular seating posture and a penchant of not sleeping – which from my experience, is just called being a freelancer. The script rarely gives L a chance to show any deductive talent, instead quickly taking a nose-dive in the second half as the iconic character is reduced to a frantic man who decides to confront Kira by stealing a police-car and going on a rampage – only being prevented from becoming a murderer himself by the appearance of a random chef, who quickly bonked him over the head, never to be seen again and robbing L of any dramatic closure. Yeah … that actually happened.
Death Note even ignores the very rules it establishes. The notebook’s power can’t make things people do what they’re unable to, yet Light makes prisoners with no Japanese knowledge write a perfect sentence in the language? Also, at one point Ryuk notes that the closest anyone’s gotten to writing his own name in the book is two letters, but early on we see scribbled warnings about not trusting him? With that discrepancy, maybe we shouldn’t. Honestly, Death Note has so many holes that I’d hesitate to call it a film – it’s a stinking Swiss cheese.
Light (Nat Wolff) and L (Keith Stanfield) have zero chemistry and only share a mind-boggling three, brief scenes together and in the first, he confesses to being Kira anyway. There’s no cat-and-mouse game of intellectuals here, there’s nothing. I legitimately spent the last twenty minutes of Death Note laughing hysterically about just how bad it is.
If you’re looking for a solid Death Note adaptation on Netflix, watch the anime. A live-action interpretation? Seek out the Japanese film series – but, just stay away from this tyre fire.
Title: Death Note
Production: Vertigo Entertainment, Witten Pictures, Lin Pictures, Viz Productions
Platform(s): Streaming via Netflix
Version Reviewed: Streaming
Released: Out Now …