Netflix and director Adam Wingard had a daunting job adapting Death Note for western audiences. For one thing, the 37-episode anime series (and the manga before that) contain a lot of story to try and pack into a single feature film. But more importantly, the original Death Note anime series, aired first in 2006 and 2007, is widely considered a classic. The series’ enthusiastic and critical fanbase awaited this westernized adaptation with white knuckles and gritted teeth, not unlike protagonist Light as he contemplates adding another name to the notebook that kills.
There’s good news out of Death Note‘s first public screening, held during San Diego Comic-Con this week: There’s little in here that should enrage most fans. Death Note is far from an exact adaptation, taking great liberties with the plot and some with the characters as well. It doesn’t even try to replicate the anime’s entire story, which arguably went on for too many episodes in its original run. But it does cram a lot of story in, which turns out to be both a good and a bad thing.
Like the original, Death Note‘s story focuses on Light (Nat Wolff), a high school student who finds a mysterious notebook that lets him kill anyone he wants, in any way he specifies, simply by writing their name in it and picturing their face. He also meets the notebook’s keeper, a shinigami (a “death god”) named Ryuk (Willem Dafoe). The film doesn’t get into Ryuk’s origin and motivations as much as its source material does, but it does drop enough hints and nods that fans should be happy. Unsurprisingly, Dafoe portrays the demonic Ryuk with pitch-perfect mania.
Light quickly discovers what the Death Note is capable of when he uses it to kill a school bully in a scene that, like many of the film’s deaths, is hilariously gruesome. Death Note consistently features the kind of violence that makes you guffaw and cringe at the same time, occasionally verging on campy, but never overdoing it. The camera always cuts away a split second after the explosions of gore, so you’re left with a vicious after-image in your mind.
One big difference from the anime is that Light, who eventually dubs himself “Kira,” is all too eager to show off his new power the second his high school crush, Mia (Margaret Qualley), starts showing interest in him. The change works well, though, since Wolff is so good at portraying Light as basically a whiny loser. Mia is a cheerleader who smokes cigarettes on the field during half-time shows, and Light correctly intuits that she’ll appreciate the power of the Death Note as much as he does.
Light and Mia’s exploits are complicated by the fact that Light’s father, played by Shea Whigham, is a detective. But their real adversary, as in the source material, is the investigator known simply as “L.” Played by Lakeith Stanfield, L is a neurotic but ingenious man of mystery who scarfs candy like his life depends on it and rarely sleeps. He’s accompanied everywhere by an equally mysterious man named Watari (Paul Nakauchi), and they together provide a decent foil for Light and Mia. What the film really captures is the cat-and-mouse dynamic among these four characters, staying true to the original in spirit, if not in the precise details of how it all plays out.
Death Note moves quickly–sometimes to a fault. Most of Light’s early exploits with the notebook play out in montage form, as the film is in a hurry to introduce L and get to the real meat of it. The first act feels a little rushed, a symptom of simply having to cram a lot of story in, even if the movie doesn’t go as far plotwise as the anime does. Yes, it leaves room for sequels.
One asset this westernized take has over the original is its setting in Seattle, a city famous for its copious rainfall. It’s used to great effect here, generating ample mood in scenes like a quiet face-off between Light and L in a late-night cafe. Water pours from the sky and soaks into the movie’s almost noir-like aesthetic. The music, ranging from understated electronic beats to John Hughes-level cheesy pop anthems, is always right on cue, adding tension or humor as needed. The soundtrack grants some of the most dramatic scenes a wryly funny edge, a slight tonal change that helps ensure Death Note doesn’t feel overly serious.
The writing is inconsistent in quality, occasionally verging on cringey–although when you’re dealing with highly confused teenagers, that’s arguably appropriate. At other times the dialogue transcends to become truly great, particularly in one late homecoming dance scene in which Margaret Qualley cements herself as the movie’s driving personality. Light is delusional, and L is maniacal in his pursuit of the former, but Mia is straight up insane, and the actress really revels in it. It’s great fun to watch.
With some issues, especially in its inconsistent pacing and dialogue, Death Note isn’t a perfect adaptation. But it is a fun one. Fans of the original should walk away happy, and newcomers to the morbid world of shinigami and sociopathic high schoolers with god complexes will get more out of the film’s relatively short runtime than they would from trying to tackle the anime’s full 37-episode run.
Death Note probably won’t become one of Netflix’s biggest hits, but for what it pays tribute to and what it accomplishes, it’s not hard to recommend.
|The Good||The Bad|
|Stays true to the original’s spirit||First act feels rushed|
|Smart changes to the plot||Inconsistent writing quality|
|Moody aesthetic and effective music|
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