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It’s frustrating when an adaptation of great material, like translating a book to film, fails to really connect with the source it’s based on. When key parts of a story are changed, sometimes it works, but unfortunately many times it backfires. Adam Wingard’s new Netflix adaptation of Death Note, based on the Japanese manga of the same name, falls into that rocky world of trying to adapt material for a new audience. Unfortunately in the process it loses much of what made the story, in all its various forms of media over the years, actually work. Instead, the film feels like a 1980’s horror/thriller that doesn’t quite come together thanks to odd tonal shifts, and a weak script that never really delves enough into the morality of the material it’s playing with.
For those unfamiliar with the material, it’s about a high schooler named Light (Nat Wolff) who ends up with a Death Note. The Death Note can be used to kill anyone whose name is put inside it. Aided by his Death god named Ryuk (Willem Dafoe), Light decides to name himself Kira, and begin killing people across the world. But when Light goes too far, a man named L (Lakeith Stanfield) becomes bent on catching the mysterious Kira. Caught in a cat and mouse game of life and death, Light now must try to outsmart one of the world’s best detectives in the hope of keeping his secret hidden.
This is the kind of material that begs to question the morality of what being able to murder in this way could do, not just to the user, but to the world at large. While the film tries at times to do that, it unfortunately seems more obsessed with the damage the Death Note can cause. It’s that change that really plays against the film, as well as Light himself. One of the odd things about the film is that Light reveals his power almost immediately to a girl he’s crushing on in school, Mia Sutton (Margaret Qualley), and she becomes obsessed with the power he possesses. This immediately takes away from Light solely making the decision to murder these people, therefore taking away the full blame of his actions. This makes the moments later in the film where he’s grappling with his actions feel worthless, because he’s never really showed any sort of regret before. Instead, he was just a horny teenager who wanted the girl, and tried to show off by killing people.
In a lot of ways, it seems like those behind the film are more bent on tackling this as a remake of Natural Born Killers, and less as an adaptation of Death Note. While it definitely bares some resemblance to the source material, the biggest problem is that the core relationships in the film don’t quite work. As previously mentioned, it feels like the relationship between Light and Mia is based off Natural Born Killers, which is just odd. It takes away Light’s sole responsibility for the chaos he’s causing as Kira. But that’s not the only broken relationship in the film, as it’s really Light and Ryuk’s relationship that doesn’t work at all. In fact, Ryuk really doesn’t serve any purpose to the film, and feels completely out of place in the world they created. It’s frustrating, because Dafoe is fantastic in the role, but with no bigger purpose in the film, it just feels like a wasted opportunity for stunt casting. Light is warned, through the book, not to trust Ryuk, but they never do much with it. There’s one moment where Light threatens to try and kill him, but it’s never touched on again, and then Ryuk basically disappears until the third act.
Unfortunately, a lot of what is talked about above that is really the biggest problem overall with the film. It really doesn’t work in any discernible way because the film is trying to do too many things. L is great, and Lakeith Stanfield plays him very well, but much of his part feels too over the top for the film it’s in. There’s a very 1980’s horror/thriller vibe underneath, so with L being very over the top and exaggerated, it doesn’t quite work. We’re also led to believe that L is an incredible detective, and there’s moments it feels like he might be, but we’re never with him enough to explore it. There’s also the issue of Light’s father, James Turner, who is played by the great Shea Whigham. Whigham is superb in his role, but the problem is, as a great cop helping L on the case to catch Kira, he should really be able to figure out early on that Light is the man he’s trying to catch. The movie does mock that at one point, thankfully, but up until that moment it’s amazing that James hasn’t figured out his son is the killer.
While the film doesn’t really come together, it is at least stylishly directed by Adam Wingard, and for those familiar with his work, his personal flourishes are all over it. From the bright neon colors to the synthesizer score, this is clearly a Wingard film. There’s moments throughout that feel very much like his film The Guest, and those are some of the strongest moments in the film. But the script is just so scatterbrained throughout that no amount of flair and fun can save the movie from imploding on itself. No matter how great it looks, the story just bottoms out quick, and we’re left with a mostly hollow shell.
Death Note should have been an easy home run for Netflix, but despite some great performances, and a strong direction, the movie doesn’t come together as a full experience. Instead of being a great adaptation of fantastic material, we’re given a far too swiftly paced film that tries to jam way too much into a ninety minute run time. On top of that, the film really doesn’t feel like delving into the relationships of the characters, or the morality involved in the use of the Death Note. What could have been a dark, twisted take on the abuse of power instead feels like a cheap ripoff of a Final Destination film, with nothing really to say. What a bummer, because this could have been something very special.