The Netflix movie offers a live-action take on the much loved anime series.
Death Note is an extremely popular manga series and a much loved anime that is often used as the gateway for people to experience this style of Japanese animation. The Netflix live action movie takes little of what made the original series so successful electing to change the story and go down a route that I am sure many fans will not have enjoyed.
Director Adam Wingard (You’re Next, Blair Witch) stated at San Diego Comic Con that he hoped to avoid the trend of poor American anime adaptations, this however did not happen. Death Note tells the story of our main protagonist Light (played by Nat Wolff) who comes into possession of a book that holds the ability to kill anyone whose name is written within. The story follows Light’s use of the ‘Death Note’ to end of the lives of those he deems to be evil, while catching the attention of mysterious detective L (played by Lakeith Stanfield) battles to track him down.
Nat Wolff’s version of Light (here called Light Turner) is that of a petulant child, he often loses his cool and never truly seems to be in control for much of the film. This is a complete tangent to the character Light Yagami from who he is based, the original manga character is calm and collected planning out the smallest of details making sure that he and his ‘Death Note’ are never discovered. Light is not supposed to be a likeable character he is someone who you are interested to see what he will do next and the lengths he will go to, to achieve his goals. Light Turner’s motivations are never truly made particularly clear, why does he elect to start killing those he says are evil, simply put in this case because he can. So much more could have been done to develop his character to fully understand the choice he has decided to make.
The true draw of Death Note is the back and forth mental battle between Light and L some of the best scenes from the manga and anime are the cat and mouse interactions that the two characters have each one trying to out think the other. These interactions are few and far between with some of the stand out moments being passed to other characters. Lakeith as L starts out strong as an eccentric rather quirky teen detective making quick deductions about the person known as Kira. However as the film progresses he loses his cool on more than one occasion becoming less of a threat to Light’s plans and more of an annoying inconvenience.
A large change from the original material is the character of Mia (Margaret Qualley) girlfriend to Light and his partner throughout relishing in the power of the ‘Death Note’. It is an interesting take on the manga version of Misa Amane a teen pop sensation who gets involved in Light’s crusade for justice. Here she plays a far more active role in Light’s crusade, but again her initial motivations and her choices particularly further into the film are poorly explained. It can be a jarring experience to see the couple making out on the bed followed by them killing a large number of people in grotesque fashion. The deaths in the film are rather extravagant from mass murders in a nightclub to people publicly throwing themselves from the rooftops. The default death that the ‘Death Note’ inflicts is heart attack which was the go to means for the manga counterpart. Wolff’s version of unreasoned and often confusing choices to go for gorey ends makes him incredibly uninteresting to watch.
Willem Dafoe as Ryuk the Shinigami (death god), who gets the ‘Death Note’ into the hands of Light, shines throughout all scenes with him are fantastic to watch. He is interesting to watch and is a major positive boon to the film. Ryuk as a character takes a far less passive role than in the source material often coaxing Light into using the ‘Death Note’ rather than being the observer he was intended to be. The CGI is done well and it was a great decision to have the character chose to lurk in the shadows enhancing his unnerving presence.
Stand out performances include Paul Nakauchi as Watari, L’s right hand man, but we don’t get near enough scenes between the two of them to fully develop their relationship. Shea Whigham does well as police chief and Light’s father James Turner and there are a few scenes with Light and his father to show some father son bond.
Overall the movie drifts along with no fixed tone, failing to take some of the most crucial parts of the source material really lets the film down with weak lead performances from Light and Mia and partly from L it leaves little to sink your teeth into. The adaptation had so much potential with Netflix’s backing but it fell short.