When a new American adaptation of literally anything emerges, the fans of the original material lose their minds.
And even though most of the anime fans deserve the meme-justice, which points to their extremely nerdy nature, they are right about the fierce criticism of “Death Note”. Because for a laic – like me – who never had the pleasure to watch the original series, Adam Wingard’s film is a disgrace on way too many levels. Hence, imagine the pain of those poor fans.
Light Turner (That name is soo cringeworthy…) is chosen by a mysterious demon Ryuk (Willem Defoe) to be the keeper of “Death Note”. The book allows its owner to walk in God’s shoes – he may kill any person in the world, however there is a lot of rules that limit him. Light strives to use the power of the book to cleanse the world of the criminals. To do so, he uses a fake identity – Kyra. Soon, police join forces with a genius detective L (Lakeith Stanfield) – the new alliance seeks justice for the infamous Kyra.
Netflix’s impact on modern cinema is truly unprecedented. With a growing budget spent on developing original productions, Netflix aims to storm worldwide audiences. However, the range of those home-produced movies is nothing close to the series sector. Whilst “House of Cards”, “Bloodline”, all Marvel series and “Orange Is The New Black” found legions of fans worldwide, Netflix’s films mostly disappoint. Next to “Beast Of No Nation” and “Okja”, stands “Girlfriend’s Day” and – like the most depressing monument of the firm’s failure – “Death Note”.
Adam Wingard never aimed to remain very faithful to the original material. He exchanged Japan with Seattle, performed some castling with the races and – eventually – came up with his own story, just loosely based on anime series. It could work – theoretically. “Throne in Blood” adapted classic Shakespeare into an absolute masterpiece. However, Wingard is no Kurosawa. “Death Note” could be an interesting look at the series, providing a more “Western” look into the “playing God” problem. Unfortunately, none of that happened. Wingard’s vision is completely misplaced, disastrous in form, boring and ill-conceived in every aspect.
There is a plethora of reasons for this state of things. Where to begin? With the essence of every film – the characters. There is not a single one in “Death Note” that is given any depth. Light is emotionally drab, screaming in awe like a typical dull-horror-guy. Wingard is completely helpless in making Light any brighter – he is a walking misery, an effect of unskillful screenwriting and atrocious acting. His romance with a playful cheerleader Mia (Margaret Qualley) is dry, whilst his maniac, obsessive drive for gore killing is out of place. Qualley, as talented as she proved to be in HBO “The Leftovers”, thrashes on screen in her teen-go-bad character. Shea Whigham, playing the role of Light’s father is just plain, Lakeith Stanfield is too odd. Goddammit, even Willem Defoe sounds bored as a rather redundant Ryuk.
Because at the core of every film, there is a story, which – frankly – is shamefully executed here. Things escalate too quickly in “Death Note” – carnage meets misplaced humor, whilst horror bits are next to a soap-opera romance. As the original series was more character-driven, more psychological and morality-questioning, Netflix’s “Death Note” offers badly executed gore and a teenager’s coming-of-age. Wingard has no clue as what to do with Ryuk too, using him when the film lacks a hole-filling scene. The cat-and-mouse game between L and Light is poorly delivered, whilst the romance of the protagonist and Mia belongs to an episode of “13 Reasons”. Wingard even tries to imbue his films with soul by adding a “Stranger-Thingsesque” soundtrack, but the prom scene with “Take My Breath Away” descripts whether it works finely. To save you this misery – it doesn’t. Big time.
Wingard has no consistency in his direction, because apparently – he doesn’t know what his version of “Death Note” is supposed to be. A teen horror like “Final Destination”? A wacky comedy? One is certain – he aimed for something way, way too unspecified. I love the fact that Netflix gives a free hand to the artists they invited, as I pointed out in my review of “Okja”. Yet, not every flower can blossom into something marvelous – some of them rot, become stinky and ugly. And “Death Note” is such a flower.
Death Note (2017)
Dir. Adam Wingard
Cast: Lakeith Stanfield, Willem Defoe, Shea Whigham
Hate Grade: 8/10