Imagine you had the power to kill with just a wish. You might already have a name in mind. It’d be so easy. You just have to write down that name. It wouldn’t feel like murder, because it’s not like you were there, like you wielded the weapon. It’d be like a dream or a game. Not murder. You’d possess incredible power, incredible reach, and with no immediate consequences. You could change the world. Could you be trusted with this power?
That’s the darkly intriguing premise of Death Note, the popular manga written by Tsugumi Ohba and illustrated by Takeshi Obata, which was turned into a 37-episode anime, and now has been condensed into an American movie. The result is an adaptation that’s rushed, irksome, and above all else mediocre.
Best known for horror hits like You’re Next and The Guest, director Adam Wingard offers gore and a creepy creature, but no gravity or heroes worth giving a damn about. Full Disclosure: I’ve never read the manga or seen the anime. Nonetheless, Netflix’s Death Note feels like an abridged version of a clearly richer narrative. Our heroes are introduced with lazy iconography to signal them as misfits. Loner Light Turner (Nat Wolff looking like baby Max Landis with a bad bleach job) sulks as he sells homework as if it’s a drug deal, while gawking over beautiful cheerleader Mia Sutton (Margaret Qualley), who we know is deep because she looks bored and is smoking a cigarette while her squad plays with pom-poms. (She’s not like the other girls!)
You might remember Qualley as the gorgeous weirdo behind this addictive perfume commercial:
In Death Note, her wild charisma and mesmerizing physicality is wasted in one-note role of Angry Pixie Dream Girl. Maybe you should just watch this on a loop instead?
See, once Light is gifted with the titular book, he has the power to communicate with a death god called Ryuk (Willem Dafoe sinisterly spitting threats and creepily cackling), who’ll kill whomever is named in the Death Note. Having spoken less than ten words to Mia, Light decides he should confide in her about his newfound power. And over the course of a breakneck montage of over the bra action and deathstravaganzas, the two become a Natural Born Killers-like couple who’ve become the Banksy of vigilante justice. Together, they quickly kill 400 criminals, graffiti-ing the name “Kira” in blood at each scene. It all happens in a breathless pace that kills the resonance of big moments, sparking a domino effect that will make most of the movie numbing instead of moving. By half an hour in, Light has gone from jaded loner to mass murdering god, leaving us little time to connect to him before he’s gone too far. As for Mia, she’s never more than the love interest who takes her top off, then grows abruptly overzealous to prove Light’s not that bad. (He literally calls himself “the lesser of two evils,” which made me want to scream for reasons too relevant.)
Mia is a plot function, not a character. Light is a whiny, self-righteous brat, so I began actively rooting against him, hoping Ryuk would slap him across the face with his giant hands at the very least. Thank the movie gods for Lakeith Stanfield, who brings a jolt to Death Note as he slides onto screen as the mysterious independent detective L.
Punctuated by yowling, yelps and pouting, Wolff’s performance comes from horror-comedies. Trapped being untamed and sexy, Qualley rages in a remake of the music video “Crying.” But Stanfield gets it. With an elocution so sharp it bleeds cool and a physicality so smooth he looks like a visual effect, Stanfield feels like a slick anime character come to life. Even with half of his face covered for much of his screen time, he’s able to lure us in where his co-stars failed. And when plot twists turn against L, Stanfield —with a pound of his fist, and eyes pulsing with rage and pain—gives Death Note much-needed emotional weight. But honestly, he’s about it for highlights.
The gore is the standard stuff of Hollywood slashers, complete with bursting skulls, splashes of blood, and a parade of seeming suicides. (Jessica Jones did it and creepier!) Ryuk loses something in translation from animation to live-action. His silhouette with its spikes and jaws is harrowing. But the CGI face looks goofy when the camera lingers, making this duplicitous deity seem less scary and more like an overgrown Garbage Pail Kid. And yet, Death Note’s biggest misstep is how it willfully ignores the meatiest part of its premise.
Being a teenager sucks. You feel like an adult, but everyone treats you like a kid. You crave power as much as you crave invisibility. What if you had both? It’s a heady possibility, but Wingard speeds through Light’s journey to relish in kill scenes and monster moments, sacrificing stakes in the process. The romance between Mia and Light rings hollow. The consequences of 400 people dying around the world is largely unexplored in favor of tedious teen angst and staring contests between Light and L. And all this barrels into a climax so abrupt and clumsy, I had to rewatch it to make sense of it.
And yes, this Death Note is absolutely whitewashed. Wingard transported the story from Japan to Seattle, then decided to cast white actors in the two lead roles of Light and Mia. (Because people of Japanese heritage don’t live in Seattle?) “Kira” is still used as a pseudonym as it means “killer” in Japanese, but it’s presented as a misdirect to keep the cops off Light’s trail. Yup, the white hero is hiding behind an assumed Japanese identity. Aside from supporting character Watari (Paul Nakauchi), the greatest representation for Japanese actors is the slew of dead yakuza members, and their molls, who are clad in skimpy lingerie, dead or alive. Basically, Wingard guts this Japanese property, using a few elements as little more than slapdash set dressing.
Despite all of Wingard’s pre-release proclamations of respecting the original, none of that shows. Death Note is a whitewashed, hasty, and vapid adaptation that offers one great performance, few thrills, and lots of missed opportunities.
Death Note is now on Netflix.