The new feature film version of ‘Death Note’ may have a polarizing effect on its audience, based on the viewer’s knowledge of the history of the property: it will likely leave fans of the original ‘Death Note’ manga and anime disappointed, while simultaneously largely satisfying folks who are getting their first taste of the series via the film. As someone who falls mostly into the latter category, I found it to be an enjoyable film-watching experience, with a few bumps along the way.
I’ve never read the mid-2000s Japanese manga comic where ‘Death Note’ was created, nor have I seen any of the 19-hour-long anime series that followed. These mediums allowed original creators Tsungumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata the freedom to tell their tale in a much more long-form type of approach – one that cannot be replicated in an hour-and-forty-one-minute feature film, no matter who’s behind the camera. For the “Americanized” version of the tale (not necessarily white-washed, mind you, as the entire premise of this film was intentionally adapted from being set in Japanese culture to the US instead), director Adam Wingard took the reins on telling the sprawling epic tale in a seriously shortened way, and – for as much as the format allowed – he’s largely successful in doing so.
The film follows the main character, Light (Nat Wolff), who seems to be a bright but not overly social high school teenager. He likes fellow classmate Mia (Margaret Qualley), but never really has the gusto to tell her – until one day when a mysterious notebook literally drops from the sky and comes to him. It’s labeled “Death Note,” and Light soon meets the book’s “spirit,” a malicious death god known as Ryuk (voiced by Willem Dafoe). Ryuk tells Light that the Death note can kill anyone – all Light has to do is think of the person’s face and write their name down. Light dares to try it on a school bully; it works, and now he has designs on killing the “bad guys” of the world. He brings Mia in on the scheme, and the two quickly become entangled with law enforcement, mostly in the form of mysterious international investigator L (Lakeith Stanfield), who seems to quickly figure out the Death Note game and will stop at nothing to try and make the killing stop.
It’s part of that last sentence that gives the film most of the “bumps” that I previously mentioned. Because the source material has been so condensed here in feature-film format, some of the most intriguing parts about a concept like ‘Death Note’ feel rushed and underserved. Shouldn’t Light struggle more with coming to terms about the new power he possesses and killing hundreds of people? Doesn’t L put the pieces of the puzzle together awfully quickly? Wouldn’t the rest of the world be reacting more wide-scale to these mysterious deaths happening all around them? These are pieces of the puzzle that were likely left on the cutting-room floor, and the overall narrative of the film does suffer as a result.
What remains, however, is a pretty solid story with excellent visuals, a good variety of wide-ranging moods from scene to scene, and a fun soundtrack (even if it is a lot of random ’80s songs that probably have no place with the modern-day high school kids being shown on-screen). Serviceable acting work is given by the cast all-around, with a particular shout-out to Dafoe, who was clearly having great fun bringing to life the spiky-backed shadow monster Ryuk via his voice work. The death scenes are quick flashes, but what we are given in those flashes are fairly gruesome; this is a film that has bits in it that will appeal to fans of horror, suspense, and mystery films, all coming together for a fairly fresh take on a very unique story line.
Will ‘Death Note’ win Wingard or Netflix any awards or high critical acclaim? Almost assuredly not. Yet, it is a fun take on a cool story, one that may act as an excellent gateway for viewers to continue on to experience the original source material in manga or anime form.
‘Death Note’ begins streaming on August 25 on Netflix.