Let’s be clear upfront: Death Note is a terrible film, no qualifications necessary. While I’m going to compare it to the original manga a lot in this review, being a fan insulted by the changes and liberties this film takes with the source material is not required to see the flaws in this telling of the tale. Death Note is a film tailored to let you down whether you know about a death god’s obsession with apples or not.
For the uninformed, Death Note is the story of a teenager named Light (Nat Wolff) who just so happens to find a death god’s instrument for killing humans. This particular Death Note belongs to Ryuk (Willem DaFoe), a troublemaking death god that likes to make trouble in the human world. The notebook allows the user to kill whoever’s name they write in its pages, as long as they can also envision the person’s face. Joined by his girlfriend Mia (Margaret Qualley), Light sets out to punish the wicked and bring a new era of justice to the world as Kira, all while being hunted by the enigmatic detective L (Lakeith Stanfield).
And that broad description is about as close as the film actually gets to the source material, as it makes a number of specific changes that sap a great deal of life and excitement from the story. It’s a shame, because the film contains several strong elements that get dragged down into the muck by just about everything else.
Let’s start with those positives before getting into all the awful. By far the highlight of the film is Stanfield’s performance as L. Where just about everything has been changed from the manga in some way, the world-famous detective manages to keep his many eccentricities, from his odd sitting posture to his antisocial behaviors and insatiable sweet tooth. Stanfield does a fantastic job embodying the role, bringing L’s wiry, odd mannerisms to life. The biggest flaw is that the writing makes the character far less logically intelligent than he should be, but Stanfield elevates the material as best he can.
Truthfully, the cast in general commit themselves, with Qualley’s Mia and Shea Whigam’s James – Light’s father – also turning in solid performances. And though he’s not in the movie nearly enough, Willem DaFoe brings the exact right creepy energy to his voicework for Ryuk. The film’s cinematography also has some high points, such as a very well-shot chase scene near the film’s climax.
Unfortunately, none of the film’s positives are absolute, with sticking points in each case. As noted, L is a character who’s only ever as intelligent as the film allows him to be; he makes incredible leaps of logic in figuring out where Kira is located, but fails to ever get proof of Light’s identity despite Light’s own lack of preparation. Qualley, Whigham, and DaFoe all do their best, but their characters are either barely in the movie, or come across as illogically insane – more on Mia shortly. As for the cinematography, it has failings, too; the deaths are stylized with all the subtlety of a Final Destination film.
From here, it’s all downhill, so let’s just start with one of the absolute worst parts of this film: Light. Starting from the fan perspective, the film somehow makes the bizarre decision to try and make Light a mass murderer we can relate to, as opposed to the arrogant, holier-than-thou monster of the original. Never mind that it saps the character of one of his defining traits, it makes for a wishy-washy lead that is neither as committed as he needs to be nor as likable as the movie wants.
This is a Light who doggedly refuses to kill the innocent, yet his first victims include a vengeance killing and a common bully – the latter was before he fully believed in the Death Note’s powers, but still. He’s also an idiot who takes no precautions in hiding what he’s doing, loudly discusses his role as Kira in public spaces, and shows the Death Note to the first girl who’s at all interested in him. The rookie mistakes this Light makes are laughable, and the L from the original manga would’ve caught him in under a week. It doesn’t help that Nat Wolff does a terrible job in the role, playing Light not as a sophisticated sociopath, but a bug-eyed cartoon character who constantly overreacts to every situation. He also likes to have sex with his girlfriend between killings, in a montage that severely blurs their allegedly noble intentions.
It’s a film that dumbs everything down, both in its themes and its storytelling structure. Everything about the original manga was meticulously crafted, from the tightly written rules of the Death Note itself to the almost fetishistic description of each character’s intricate machinations. Here, instead of Light having to develop a truly fiendish master plan, they’ve chosen to simply juice the Death Note’s power up to the level that it can basically overpower the laws of reality to make some of its deaths work out.
Worse still, the film somehow takes the problematic character of Misa from the original and turns her into a whole different hot mess with Mia. At first, it seems like a good thing that she’s not as much of a pawn of Light as she was in the original. However, the film fails to make her anything more than a crazy person who decides to become a killer for no well-defined reason. In the original, she worshipped Kira because he killed the man who murdered her family and wanted to do all she could to help him. Here? She’s just a bored cheerleader with no defined backstory or motivation whatsoever; she’s a bland psycho killer (qu’est-ce que c’est).
Honestly, I could just go on and on about the problems with this film: Light’s weird mind control plot with L’s assistant Watari, the lack of any appreciable character development, the abysmal final plot turns before the credits. Let’s also not forget the whitewashing of the entire cast and story that’s not only culturally problematic, but makes for some ludicrous plot rewrites of its own.
Translating the complex 12-volume manga that is Death Note into a feature film was always a losing proposition; the Japanese films struggled with condensing material. But this adaptation takes far too many wrong-headed liberties with the material, and it’s a shame given how good director Adam Wingard’s past work has been. Simply put, this is a bad film whether you’re a fan or not, and no amount of dramatically eaten potato chips could ever redeem it.
Final Score: 3 out of 10