Oh Hollywood. You keep trying to adapt anime into live action and you keep churning out polished turds. Our latest floater is the Netflix adaptation of popular franchise Death Note.
This dark fantasy horror thriller is the story of a Seattle high school student named Light Turner (The Fault in our Stars’ Nat Wolff) who discovers the eponymous supernatural book which can kill people just by writing their names and thinking of their faces. He uses the Death Note to punish criminals as the anonymous “Kira” and eventually attracts the attention of a highly skilled but eccentric special investigator code named “L” (Get Out’s Lakeith Stanfield). It is directed by Adam Wingard, known for horror films like You’re Next and the 2016 Blair Witch flop of a sequel.
And Wingard flops hard again here with this miscast, misfire of a film. The cast and crew already spoiled things but here is still a SPOILER ALERT before I cut up this flick up in three unpalatable slices:
#1 Not too bright Light
I tried not to compare this film to the anime (2006-2007) but the live action version features so many characters and events from it that comparisons are inevitable. In the anime Light is a handsome genius who is secretly a manipulative, misanthropic, sociopathic megalomaniac. He wants to use the Death Note to wipe out evil and become a god. Everyone, including his family and girlfriend, are just pawns in his game. He is a reprehensible character but so clever and so well written that you love to hate him.
Film Light is a mere shadow of his anime counterpart (Get it? Light? Shadow? You get it.) He is a bullied nerd who first uses the Death Note to kill a bully and then a criminal that killed his mother in a hit and run. Those victims were generic, low hanging fruit and the writer could not resist. This Light is supposed to be smart but he is really a shouting, dull faced, jumpy idiot. He tells the quirky chick in his school Mia (Margaret Qualley) about the Death Note; she is actually clever and brutal and this shows up even more how dumb Light is. He also asks his cop father pointed questions about Kira though he is equally lame brain pop does not get suspicious. He lets his cop father live after he threatens Kira on live television, giving himself away to L. He practically admits to being Kira to L and then gives him vital information about the Death Note when L threatens him with a gun. And then at the end we are supposed to believe he pulled off a Machiavellian scheme to kill Mia, save himself and retain the Death Note after he spent the movie displaying the brain capacity of a termite. Shut the front door movie. And Wolff’s lack of expression and dearth of believable acting is the coup de grace to finish off what was supposed to be a compelling, psychological antagonist/protagonist. This Light should never have been switched on in the first place.
#2 The Letter L
There is but one slightly shining light (no pun intended) in this mess of an affair and that is Stanfield’s L. He captures the awkwardness, intensity and muted energy of the anime character. You believe he is a genius investigator whose brilliance has brought master criminals to justice. While in the anime it is an equal battle of the minds between Light and L, live action Light is no match for this L. He easily outwits and out thinks him. It is kind of sad actually. But the movie had to mess up its only good character as well. In one scene L tells Light’s cop dad that he does not use guns. Then after his manservant and father figure is killed by Kira he pulls out a gun and chases Light in the streets. What the fudge? Your strategic mastermind character’s plan is to run down the perpetrator and shoot him? Why does this movie hate its own characters?
Light’s cop father James Turner (Shea Whigham) has zero chemistry with his son and him jumping on L when he accuses Light of being Kira is jarringly out of character. While anime Light’s dad is racked with doubt about his son being a multiple murderer, live action Light’s dad is dumb as a rock. Sure he figures out Light is Kira at the end but the entire revelation scene is flat and dry. The other characters in the film are forgettable except Willem Dafoe as the demonic god of death Ryuk. The design and voice acting are all well done but he goes from coaxing Light into using the Death Note to later saying that he does not care either way, the latter being closer to his anime counterpart. And kudos to the movie for having a character on screen for all of five minutes and still making him inconsistent. It was funny though when Light screamed like a girl when Ryuk first appeared. What a wimp.
#3 PS – What’s the point?
The biggest issue in a movie with a crapload of issues is that this film does not know what the heck it is. We have Ryuk doing jump scares as though he is in a supernatural horror movie. Then when Light begins using the book we have a Final Destination rip-off via an assortment of overly gory deaths including heads and bodies exploding everywhere. There is even a guy who is electrocuted and explodes like a piñata. Now I’m no doctor but I don’t think that is how biology works. Then we have the weird teen romance between the killers Light and Mia. And then in the middle of the film it follows the anime storyline with the word of Kira spreading throughout the world and L beginning to investigate him. And then we have a strange final act that is neither scary nor intense but jut lame and inexplicable. The movie is not scary enough to be a horror, not intelligent enough to be a detective crime drama, not deep enough to be a psychological drama and not intense enough to be thriller. It is just there, like a lump of grease in an unwashed pot.
The film leaves you with many questions and not in a good way. Why is Light so stupid? Are they trying to make us think Light is an anti-hero and Mia the real villain? Why do they quote rules from the Death Note only to break them, like Mia not being the owner of the Death Note but still being able to use it? Are we supposed to be scared for Mia and Light on the Ferris wheel when neither of these characters were particularly interesting or even likable? Who chose a cheesy rock ballad to play at the climax? Why am I even watching this waste of a movie? I am not surprised to hear that they want Death Note to become a franchise as franchises are all the rage and horror franchises are practically a given. But after this mess of a movie I would write the names of the sequels in a Death Note and hope they die a horrible death.
Rating: Death Note gets 1.5/4 rotten apples
For my non-spoiler review of the vastly superior Death Note anime you can click here.