Starring: Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield, Margaret Qualley, Shea Whigham, Willem Dafoe.
Plot: A teenage boy comes across a black note book that gives him the power to take the life of anyone who’s name is written in its pages. Crafting himself a godlike alter-ego, it isn’t long before the authorities and a young and gifted private investigator are on his trail.
Alarm bells were ringing quite early for me when this film was announced, not necessarily because it was a remake, I’m not really one for jumping on the judgement bandwagon when it comes to remakes. I was also not really concerned that it was being bankrolled by Netflix, they have been securing themselves some fine films of late, some I have really enjoyed and favourably reviewed. Not even because of the anime it was based on, I have watched some of it and it is excellent but live action counterparts more often than not end up being entirely different beasts, I knew this was going to be the case here so didn’t jump the gun fretting here either. No, it came more from being a fan of the live action Japanese originals and seeing that the film had been gifted to the director of last years atrocious Blair Witch. You may remember I named him back then as ‘some hack’, his name is Adam Wingard, he’s earned a namecheck for his skill now in my opinion.
I’ll start by saying that Death Note isn’t completely the god awful mess it could have quite easily been. I felt initially it wasn’t in safe hands and I feel I had just cause to be reticent considering, but director Wingard has made a bold and noteworthy effort with Death Note. The film is stylish, tailored for a late teenage audience with its carefully curated soundtrack, suitably angsty subject matter and OTT gory death scenes. It is beautifully shot to give Wingard his dues, it looks the business and the expensively CG Ryuk is easily the most spot on thing about the film, from his appearance to the perfectly cast Willem Dafoe on mo-cap and vocal duties. The rest of the cast deliver admirably, Wingard coaxing some decent performances across the board, I particularly liked Lakeith Stanfield’s nuanced take on super-sleuth L. This is unfortunately where all praise ends.
This adaptation of Death Note isn’t written well at all and suffers quite badly from trying to cram too much badly conveyed story into its 100 minute run time, It really feels shoehorned to meet a deadline and it is painfully noticeable. Also, the character of Light is pretty off the mark from the anime & films. Prior, he was a cool, calculating sociopath and a worthy foil to L, in this film he shrieks like a little girl when he first encounters Ryuk, it is massively out of character. The back and forth between L & Light which was so central to the anime & original live action versions also feels as though it has been either badly handled or completely misinterpreted altogether here, that feel of cat & mouse is almost entirely absent. There have been some changes to the story also and it does feel that with the narrative changes that have been made in this version of Death Note that it is being squarely catered toward a western audience and not necessarily one that was familiar with the original source material in the first place, these changes don’t necessarily feel like they suit any kind of thematic purpose, they just feel narratively lazy, cliched and thrown together which is a pity as Wingard and his cast really did some fine work on this film only to be let down by the writers and the immensity cynical production. A shame.
Death Note is currently available to stream via Netflix.