While it may be one of the most ambitious original productions from Netflix so far, one of the things that keeps me from giving DEATH NOTE a wholehearted recommendation is the way it feels like they’re afraid to explore the full potential of this idea — something that has been true of every version of Death Note that I’ve sampled so far.
There is a particular cultural sensitivity surrounding the American adaptation of manga projects these days, and there should be. You’re talking about properties that are hugely important to their original audience, and like any adaptation, part of that process should involve asking why the thing works at all.
When you talk about adapting something like Watchmen, for example, it’s not just a matter of taking what happens on the page and making it happen in front of a camera. Watchmen worked as a comic book because Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons designed it as a comic book, and they played with every part of the comic book. They played with panel placement, with layout, with the tactile experience of holding something and turning pages. There are tributes built into the actual way the story is told, nods to the long history of telling similar stories in a similar media. Watchmen is not just a piece of comic history now; it is a reaction to all of comic history, and it is a distillation of comic history into a single physical artifact. That is part of why it is great, a part that cannot be separated out.
Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata’s Death Note worked in print in part because of the way manga audiences devour their favorite stories, and also because of the way Weekly Shonen Jump works. That audience loves the week-to-week nature of the storytelling, and the authors that have the greatest success with that audience are the ones who know how to keep that audience engaged from week to week, and cliffhanger to cliffhanger.
The three Japanese films (as well as the spin-off about “L,” one of the main supporting characters) build a fairly elaborate personal mythology around Light, the character who finds the Death Note, a notebook in which you write the name of anyone you want to see die. All you need is their name and their face, which makes for a fairly provocative moral quandary. If you were given that kind of power, would you use it? If you accepted that it was real, what would you do? In every version of the story, Light starts with the best of intentions, but quickly learns that killing to do the right thing still adds up to wrong. Fans who are looking for a direct adaptation of every story point of the original are going to be frustrated, but there are bigger questions than which story details they’ve kept and which they’ve jettisoned.
The biggest choice up front was to age Light down a bit. In every other version, he’s a college student when the story begins. Here, he’s in high school, and it feels like part of the reason for that is so director Adam Wingard can do his riff on Movie High School, which he does pretty well. The film is incredibly stylized, and David Tattersall’s photography makes even the most mundane space seem like it’s wrapped in shadow and throbbing with menace. The same is true of the score by Atticus Ross and Leopold Ross. On a technical level, Wingard has grown enormously since Pop Skull, the very small no-budget movie that introduced me to his voice. Between this film and last year’s Blair Witch, it’s clear that Wingard has become very nimble on a technical level.
Watching how he handles Ryuk, the death god who is behind the Death Note, is a good example of showing how casually accomplished his work is right now. Part on-set physical performance by Jason Liles, part motion-captured facial and vocal performance by Willem Dafoe, Ryuk is never the focus of a moment, an effect pushed front and center for the audience to examine. He’s directed like a character, and while he’s seamlessly realized, Wingard never makes that the “Wow!” moment that so many filmmakers would. There’s not a frame of this movie that is just dashed off, and if there’s any nod to the manga origin of the story, it’s in the meticulous composition of every single image in the film. This is the most fluid and decisive visual storytelling of Wingard’s career so far.
Now, about that script (credited to Charley Parlapanides & Vlas Parlapanides and Jeremy Slater)…
It doesn’t help that Nat Wolff never really settles into the character of Light, giving a performance that feels disconnected from everything around him. It’s strange how wrong Wolff is for the part, and it makes me wonder how they got all of these decisions wrong. The film doesn’t try to retell the story that has been told before, instead cherry-picking elements to build a new story that feels familiar without trying to literally condense the events of three movies or 11 TV episodes or 108 chapters of a story. Light still finds a notebook that is literally dropped at his feet out of the clear-blue sky, and he still decides to use the notebook to try to do good in the world, and he still ends up locked in a cat-and-mouse with “L,” a mysterious super-detective who is determined to stop Kira’s wave of murder.
In this telling, though, Light is a put-upon high school student living with his father, a police detective. He’s still struggling with the death of his mother, whose killer skated free because of a slick lawyer and too much money. When he gets the Death Note, it leads him to fall into a relationship with Mia (Margaret Qualley), and the weird chemistry between the two of them, driven in no small part by the thrill of what they’re doing, eventually curdles, turning them into rivals to see who will ultimately control the fate of the Death Note and the world itself. “L” (Lakeith Stanfield) is the mysterious detective who offers his services to the police to help capture Kira, and his all-purpose manservant Watari (Paul Nakauchi) ends up playing a key part in that struggle.
It all builds to a climax during the homecoming dance, about as American High School Movie a choice as possible, and while I appreciate that as a choice, it highlights one of the biggest problems I have with this version overall — I don’t buy it.
Storytelling is a magic trick. It is inherently phony, but when a story works, it works on us in ways that are undeniable and involuntary and real. When we are moved to tears or when we are shocked to laughter, those are real reactions, and when you look at how attached audiences get to characters, those are real connections. So often, I can tell within the first five or 10 minutes of a film whether or not they managed the magic trick of creating something that I can hand myself over to, something I can believe while I’m watching, that pushes past the undeniably artificial to find something unassailably true. This film frustrated me because there are so many things that work, wrapped around so many things that don’t. I bought the magic trick, but there were elements that kept jarring me out of the experience.
Wingard’s working his ass off to make the world come to life, and Nat Wolff stands there in the middle of it like a thumb, just plain not working. Lakeith Stanfield does dedicated physical work, crawling through the movie all angles and affect, and he more than sells the idea of “L” as part of this tradition of orphans all trained to become brilliant detectives, but the film ladles on so many of the details of “L” so quickly that it feels like we’re watching Stanfield’s performance on fast-forward. Margaret Qualley is so talented and so perfectly cast as Mia that you might actually believe we learn anything about her or that she’s written like a real character on the page, but when you really focus on what they give her to do, it’s clear that it’s not true. It’s like the film pulls off the magic trick, but they’re standing in the wrong place, so you can see exactly how they’re doing what they’re doing, undermining the good work with some really weird, basic mistakes.
Things move too fast, and some of the most important ideas are dealt with in montage, making it hard to fully invest in what we’re watching, and then the film builds to a third act that hinges largely on plot mechanics that draw on the elaborate rules of the Death Note, rules that are never fully explained to the audience. All of a sudden, this book that will kill people also turns into a book that can control people and that can make them do anything, and there are loopholes and reset buttons and all sorts of extra ideas to juggle that simply muddy the water and reduce everything to “because the magic book said so.” It’s hard to give a shit when there are no limits to the rules and when the stakes are as confusing as they are here.
I’m still not sure what law you’re breaking by writing in a book, which is the only thing anyone could ever accuse Light of doing. Unless they’re going to drag Ryuk the death god into the courtroom, it seems like everyone’s worked up about something that is easily avoided. Even if someone found the Death Note, there’s no law about writing someone’s name in your creepy goth notebook. I wish the film embraced more of the lunacy of this idea, or that they’d gone bigger with it, or that Nat Wolff played the entire film with the energy he plays his original introduction to Ryuk.
Instead, Wingard’s Death Note will most likely be remembered as another frustrating case of an adaptation that simply doesn’t adapt enough to stand on its own, and it will be used as further “evidence” that manga doesn’t translate well to American film, its merits ultimately crushed by its flaws.
Rated: R (if Netflix movies had ratings)
Running time: 99 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic