"Death Note" Sucks The Life Out Of Its Source Material

Contrary to online chatter, the ultimate tragedy of Netflix’s “Death Note” adaptation isn’t its general infidelity to its source material; it’s that it sucks.

Like 2017’s other feature film whitewash of Japanese manga, “Ghost In The Shell,” the pitfalls of “Death Note” only begin with its cursory adoption of an explicitly Eastern work for American audiences. (Manga is more than a 20th and 21st century art form; it remains deeply rooted in Japanese art dating back centuries.) Past the film’s ice cold cultural detachment – which dovetails nicely with its juvenile screenplay – director Adam Wingard and writers Charles Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides, and Jeremy Slater have made a deeply prosaic work that rests on genre laurels of ugly violence and thoughtless characters, uninterested in drawing out meaning from a lead with a literal god complex.

Nat Wolff (“Paper Towns”) stars as teenage Seattleite Light Turner, a stock mopey high school outcast given no time for characterization before a magical book, the titular Death Note, falls out of the sky and into his lap. Tellingly, Light never becomes more than our first glimpse of him; he is the kid who quietly daydreams of getting back at his tormentors, actualized when a spiky demon named Ryuk (Willem Dafoe) shows up and explains the power of the book that just fell out of the heavens.

In it, Light scribbles the name of his bully, along with a desired cause of death, and watches with disturbing nonchalance through his bedroom window as the young man is decapitated. It is here that Wingard and his writers find the uneasy balance beam on which their film will remain; a purgatory between young adult and horror, between the source material and something else entirely. Not serious but not fun, without the confidence or style of Wingard’s “You’re Next” and “The Guest.” No, this is much closer to his disastrous “Blair Witch,” a project that couldn’t even clear a modest baseline of justifying its own existence.

With a godlike protagonist comes an innate void of central conflict and this is reflected in Wolff’s apathetic performance. As Light enacts his wrath on a bevy of varyingly wicked targets, there’s nothing to counteract the violence but a sudden, awkward narrative swing at geopolitical conflict. As if things weren’t clumsy enough when kept inside Seattle’s city limits. When the screenplay goes global, the wheels fall off.

Light and his new girlfriend Mia (Margaret Qualley), a yawning nothing of a character, begin executing international criminals under the name Kira. People the world over start worshiping this omnipotent force for justice, leading to an evitable pushback. A mysterious FBI agent known as L (Lakeith Stanfield, locked in a battle with Wolff over the pic’s worst performance) picks up the couple’s scent, homing in on Seattle as Kira’s base and soon chatting up Light’s cop father (Shea Wigham) for information at his dining room table.

Even the highlight here – Dafoe’s CGI-enhanced Ryuk – is a miss. The character, outwardly enthralling, is reduced to veritable squawking parrot on Light’s shoulder, sidelined for long stretches of the film. The root of his power is all but glossed over. Early on, there’s an intriguing warning scrawled in the book by a past owner. “Don’t trust Ryuk. He is not your pet. He is not your friend.” It never amounts to anything.

The pic’s other peaks are bleached facsimiles of Wingard’s previous work. The synth-heavy soundtrack is enjoyable and the visuals are often sleek, occasionally enveloping the ugly, predictable story that lurks beneath. But when Light inexplicably makes his last stand on a ferris wheel, the movie comes crashing down with it, revealing the inner workings of a project that never made it out of bed. Where “The Guest” was a genuinely surprising thriller on top of exuding cool, “Death Note” is only concerned with the latter, leading to a painfully awkward marriage between beloved property and creative culd-de-sac. The dead fish romance at the center of it all is part and parcel with a creative team that has no discernible fever for making this particular movie.

In the end, we have no reason to care if Light can overcome his own corruptibility, or if he’ll pay for his crimes, or who comes into possession of the Death Note next. The screenplay, and as a result, the experience of watching the picture, is so passive, so dependent on the moment – This shot looks kind of neat! Hey, I know this song! – that it is almost the idealization of Netflix’s anti-theatrical feature film model.

Don’t be sad, dear Death Note fans, that you weren’t able to see it in on the big screen. Be sad that you were able to see it at all.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Bad)

Release Date: August 25, 2017
Studio: Netflix
Director: Adam Wingard
Screenwriters: Charles Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides, and Jeremy Slater
Starring: Nat Wolff, Margaret Qualley, Lakeith Stanfield, Shea Wigham, Willem Dafoe