Film Review: Death Note

Adam Wingard’s manga adaptation about a teen terror and his killer book does a half-decent job of embracing its weirdness.
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Here at FJI, we’re obviously big proponents of seeing movies on the big screen. But with hundreds of movies coming out a year, it’s impossible to see everything in theatres. Plenty of movies are neither good enough nor visually dazzling enough to justify shelling out $15 for a movie ticket…but, at the same time, they provide sufficient entertainment value for, say, a Sunday afternoon when you need something to halfway pay attention to while you’re doing housecleaning. Think of them as Netflix movies. How convenient, then, that Adam Wingard’s Death Note is one of them, considering it’s being put out—in a small number of theatres concurrent to its streaming release—by Netflix itself.

A trio of writers—Jeremy Slater (2015’s Fantastic Four) and Vlas and Charley Parlapanides (Immortals)—adapted the Japanese manga (later turned into a television series) about a teenager who stumbles upon the Death Note: a mysterious book that gives its “keeper” the power to kill anyone whose name is written in it. Ask for a man half a world away to die of a heart attack, and bam, it happens, as long as the keeper of the book knows the victim’s name and face. Death Note’s antihero immediately, and with very few compunctions, begins using the book to take out those he deems worthy of death, mostly criminals who have used money and connections to avoid punishment.

If you’re going to do a Death Note adaptation, one essential element you have to tackle is this: Your main character, Light Yagami (Light Turner in this version, played by The Fault in Our Stars’ Nat Wolff), is a narcissistic, pretentious, smarmy, wannabe-edgy jerk. This is not some heroic vigilante out to protect the innocent. He’s a teenager who thinks he’s smarter and better than all the adults in his life (so…a teenager), except instead of broody poetry and trips to Hot Topic, he has the power of wholesale murder in his hands. People “are a bunch of sheep,” says Light’s girlfriend/accomplice Mia (Margaret Qualley). “What they want is a god,” agrees Light. Tell it to your diaries, nerds.

And, to Wingard’s credit, he gets it. There are stylistic elements at play here—targeted use of slow-motion; ’80s musical cues that call to mind his earlier, better film The Guest; and inventive set design (I don’t know about you, but every school I went to definitely had giant glass jars full of marbles lying around for someone to break in a dramatic fashion)—that indicate the director has his tongue firmly planted in cheek.

Helping keep Wingard’s hyperexaggerated tone in check are a trio of performances that anchor the whole film. Jason Liles and Willem Dafoe play the physical form (Liles) and voice/facial motion capture (Dafoe) of Ryuk, the death god who comes as the Death Note’s free gift with purchase. As a force of chaotic evil constantly needling Light to kill more people, he’s always a pleasure to watch. Ditto L (Lakeith Stanfield), the detective tasked with finding the mysterious “Kira,” the name Light operates under. Stanfield’s performance is more restrained than Dafoe’s but equally intense.

Both fortunately and unfortunately, Stanfield and Dafoe walk all over Nat Wolff in terms of performance. Fortunately, because they make the movie moderately fun to watch. Unfortunately because, you know, Wolff is the main character. Taking a story set in Japan and reworking it so it’s set in Seattle with a white lead, Death Note was whitewashed...and, stripped of its original cultural context, was also rendered a bit bland. It’s over the top in certain ways, but not as a whole, Wolff’s too-muted performance and his frankly insufferable character insufficient to maintain audience interest whenever Dafoe, Liles and Stanfield aren’t around. There’s a good backbone here, but the script could have used a punch-up pass. It’s a movie about a killer book, for Christ’s sake. Take everything you have, and make it weirder.

Click here for cast and crew information.