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Death Note – Review


Release Date: 25th August 2017 [USA]
Director: Adam Wingard
Writer: Charley Parlapanides - Vlas Parlapanides - Jeremy Slater
Cast: Nat Wolff - Lakeith Stansfield - Margaret Qualley



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Posted August 28, 2017 by

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Death Note Review:

When Netflix announced that an adaptation of fan favourite Japanese manga Death Note was in production, a synchronous tremor ran through the hearts of fans around the world. The Death Note anime is a cornerstone of modern pop culture with its faithful adaptation of the manga much hailed; the overriding concern among fans was how an American adaptation would do justice to the source material.

Well, the answer is, it doesn’t. The whitewashing of the lead character becomes an almost insignificant deviation compared to the rest of the film. For some reason, the writers decided that it was possible to condense a multi-volume manga into a single 100 minute-film. The result is a hash of the original’s concepts crushed under heavy expositional plotting and an egregious teenage romance.

From the very outset, the director of the film assures its audience that this is an all-American film, opening with a sweeping panorama of Seattle’s urban landscape, high school cheerleaders tittering in practice, gruff American football players sweating it out; we are privy to quintessential scenes of life in the US. Let it not be thought that this Japanese story has not been successfully transplanted to a whole new world.

Light Turner (Nat Wolff) is a poor, bullied boy crushing on perfect cheerleader Mia (Margaret Qualley) when he picks up a book that falls from the sky. While serving detention at school, he comes across an entity that explains just what Light’s latest possession is and he thus uses his newfound ability to ‘become a God’… and also get the girl. Light and Mia’s vigilantism under the guise of ‘Kira’ continue swimmingly till his father (Shea Whigham) and independent investigator ‘L’ (Lakeith Stanfield) are tasked with tracking down this unseen culprit. Suddenly, the lines between right and wrong are blurred and it’s a race to reveal who really is Kira.

Death Note Review

It is difficult to analyse this adaptation without revealing some spoilers, so tread carefully. The film ticks off the essential elements of the manga without capturing the essence of the story or the characters. The creators try to make it into a horror, with placid jump scares included when Ryuk (Willem Dafoe) first appears. Trouble is, everyone is familiar with Ryuk, either from the originals or from the trailer. The scares? There are none. This approach also detracts completely from what made the source material both controversial and exciting. The horror of the original comic and anime was that Light Yagami is born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth and the world at his feet – despite initial good intentions, the taste of power that the Death Note brings with it changes Light, or at least brings to the fore, his latent psychopathic tendencies. The Netflix adaptation, on the other hand, is too frightened to paint their straight, white male protagonist as anything but a good guy despite all evidence to the contrary.

The writing also simplifies a convoluted tale about battling personalities and ideologies into a story about a boy trying to impress a girl who he has never spoken to. Said love interest, Mia, is the stand-in for the original’s Misa Amane, a powerful, if annoying, figure whose devotion to Light does not supersede her authority over her own Death Note. Light is her love interest, instead of the other way around. Essentially, she is a darker personality than Light, but they are evenly matched in their quest to keep Kira going. The film reduces Mia to a personality-less Lady Macbeth character – thereby making her both Light’s redemption and failure.

Director Adam Wingard and his writers could not even do Ryuk and L correctly, and these are two characters who are purposely mysterious with little backstory. Ryuk suddenly becomes an evil instigator and the root of Light’s downfall; a sharp divergence from the Japanese version where Ryuk is but a menacing enabler, who sits back and simply watches the world burn. By transposing the more evil traits from Light onto other characters in this film, the writers ensure that Light is absolved of all sins, thereby making him a hero for a new audience. For the uninitiated, the attraction to read or watch the originals may bring about some shocking revelations.

Death Note Creature

The temptation, for some, may be to assess the qualities of this film on its own merit. The curtailed runtime results in a rapid-fire set of scenes, most of which are either expository or pacey plot points. Despite this, a new and bizarre backstory is provided for L, a charismatic character who has never needed one. Stanfield, for his part, gives the role his all. He captures the voice intonations of L from the anime perfectly, and fluidly incorporates his eccentric mannerisms as well. There were some nuances I wish he had also included, especially the distinctive way L holds objects. Unfortunately for Stanfield, the film lets him down by not giving him enough screen time and reducing his character to an emotional (emotions and L do not match) obstruction to Light’s success.

There are too many unnecessary changes made to the core personalities of the characters, which will set fans’ teeth on edge, but also reduces the impact of the film’s plot itself. Vapid acting by Wolff and Qualley, who don’t look remotely like teenagers, assisted by a paper-thin romantic arc means we don’t care for the characters. Dafoe’s voice-acting as Ryuk is perfect, but he has no substance to make much of a difference to the overall feel of the film. And speaking of feel, one cannot help but wonder who the target audience for this film was meant to be. The focus on high school life and teenage angst appeals to teens, but one would think the gratuitous gore, profusion of profanity and a flash of nudity put this film out of reach of under-18s. This tonal confusion certainly impedes the viewing experience, as you can never quite tell if certain scenes are meant to be frightening or amusing.

Netflix is known for creating evocative, original material, but off-late it feels like they are keen to stay relevant at the cost of high quality filmmaking. This was an adaptation that no one asked for, but the creators were able to disappoint even the lowest of our expectations. It is apparent that the makers of this film weren’t passionate about the source material, which can explain why they believed they could condense a sprawling story into one single film. The resulting product is incoherent and unwatchable. Stanfield and Dafoe’s performances are the only bright sparks in this otherwise thankless venture.


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Lestat de Lioncourt
Random Thoughts – Lestat’s Blog
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One Comment


    I know nothing of this movie’s origins so I’m reviewing entirely on its own merits.
    Starts promisingly enough then Ryuk(?) appears. It breaks the mood completely and then can’t decide if to play it for laughs or scares. It becomes a cross between Freddy Krueger and the Grinch. Neither scary or humorous.
    A mysterious figure leads the investigation from behind the scenes and it turns out to be a young black teen in charge of some mean Japanese with seemingly endless resources at his fingertips.

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