Netflix’s adaptation of the Japanese manga Death Note marks the latest incarnation of this well-established property, which has seen numerous previous movie, TV and anime treatments in Japan and overseas, but no prior live-action English-language version. With the streamer’s global reach, the latest iteration will easily attract a worldwide audience in conjunction with a limited U.S. theatrical run, but building an eventual franchise on the back of director Adam Wingard’s latest feature may prove more challenging across such a wide variety of territories and cultures.
Teenage wish-fulfillment fantasies, while sometimes violent, rarely involve the intervention of a Japanese “shinigami” death god, but writer Tsugumi Ohba and illustrator Takeshi Obata’s Death Note manga, first serialized in 2003, relies more on supernatural elements than a typical thriller. The transference of this plot device in Jeremy Slater’s script, co-written by Charley Parlapanides and Vlas Parlapanides, doesn’t always play out altogether smoothly, but the film’s high school setting will be comfortably familiar to American audiences.
Brainy loner Light Turner (Nat Wolff) can’t seem to catch a break: Between beatdowns by the school bullies and stern lectures from his widowed Seattle police detective dad James (Shea Whigham), he’s always on the defensive. It’s not until a mysterious leather-bound antique notebook literally falls from the sky at his feet that he begins to gain the upper hand. Inscriptions in the book, titled Death Note, explain that writing somebody’s name on the ancient parchment pages and imagining their face will result in their almost instantaneous death. Further elucidation of the book’s power is provided by Ryuk (Willem Dafoe), an 8-foot-tall, porcupine-spined shinigami who controls the Death Note and appears to Light every time he opens it up, while remaining invisible to anyone else.
Ryuk encourages Light to test the Death Note’s power, and soon he’s targeting terrorists and criminals worldwide for elimination. In order to conceal his identity, he adopts the pseudonym Kira, a Japanese approximation of “killer.” Light’s secretiveness surrounding the book attracts the attention of badass cheerleader Mia (Margaret Qualley), who eagerly goads Light into claiming more victims after she effortlessly seduces him.
With the death count topping 400, the mysterious Kira becomes a worldwide phenomenon, celebrated for ridding the world of unrepentant criminals, while at the same time topping law-enforcement’s most-wanted list. The Japanese authorities recruit the American teen super-sleuth known only as “L” (Lakeith Stanfield) to track down Kira and bring him to justice. When L takes the hunt to Seattle, recruiting James for his investigative team, Light suddenly realizes that his anonymity may not be assured, just as Ryuk and Mia push him to step up his vigilante campaign.
The potentially problematic Ryuk character succeeds largely due to clever casting, with Dafoe supplying layers of sardonic humor and nerve-rattling cackles to punctuate his most emphatic line readings. In a role far removed from his performances in YA titles like ?Paper Towns and ?The Fault in Our Stars?, Wolff’s Light Turner, despite being saddled with an cringingly obvious name, evinces a sympathetic degree of moral confusion once he begins to understand the frightening power of the Death Note.
Stanfield, whose L character wears a black turtleneck covering the lower half of his face to conceal his identity for two-thirds of the movie, impresses as more self-conscious than mysterious, never quite developing a three-dimensional identity. Qualley’s Mia, on the other hand, is very clearly delineated, and the actress seizes the role with enthusiasm, squeezing as much disruptive unpredictability as possible into a disappointingly truncated arc.
The film’s frequent violence, blood and gore would surely earn an R rating in the U.S., but Netflix doesn’t need to worry about that with a streaming release (the theatrical version will go out unrated). Even so, Death Note is a far sight tamer than Wingard’s typical horror fare, lacking either the manic terror of You’re Next or the deadly irony of The Guest, for instance. Rather than relying on amplifying typical genre conventions, Wingard methodically lays the foundation to set up this particular Death Note adaptation for a potential sequel, but the outcome is more deliberate than inspired.
Production companies: LP Entertainment, Vertigo Entertainment, Lin Pictures
Cast: Nat Wolff, Margaret Qualley, Lakeith Stanfield, Shea Whigham, Paul Nakauchi, Willem Dafoe, Jason Liles
Director: Adam Wingard
Screenwriters: Charley Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides, Jeremy Slater
Producers: Jason Hoffs, Dan Lin, Roy Lee, Masi Oka
Executive producers: Miri Yoon, Jonathan Eirich, John Powers Middleton, Brendan Ferguson
Director of photography: David Tattersall
Production designer: Thomas S. Hammock
Costume designer Emma Potter
Editor: Louis Cioffi
Music: Atticus Ross, Leopold Ross