It Doesn’t Take a Fan of the Original Death Note to be disappointed by this.
Let me start by saying that I was a tremendous fan of the original Death Note anime, so it was going to be impossible for me not to walk into Netflix’s most recent original movie without high expectations. Unfortunately, the film fell well short of them. However, I don’t believe that’s necessarily any fault of its own. There were quite a few things I enjoyed about the movie overall, it just couldn’t capture the essence that made the anime so memorable.
A number of details were changed for the new movie, the most evident being that it no longer takes place in Japan. This alone had a major impact on the overall tone of the story. The new location of Seattle though does add a lot to the tone of the movie. The dark skies, sprawling skyline, rainy weather, it all comes together to create a sense of melancholy and dread. Honestly, I think that this alone was probably the most effective change made by the writing team of Charley Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides, and Jeremy Slater.
The other big change to the story was probably the most controversial, in the fact that the characters were changed to American (which makes sense given the setting). Of course, white washing is something that Hollywood is facing a lot of backlash over these days, but if that isn’t taken into account, I have to say the casting was pretty solid overall. Willem Dafoe as the death god Ryuk is probably one of the more brilliant castings I’ve seen over the years. The rest of the cast, consisting of Nat Wolff, Lakieth Stanfield, and Margaret Qualley, do the best that they can with the material they are given, but none of them are able to breathe the life into the characters that the story so desperately needs. Personally, I blame the writing team for this more than the actors, because it feels like they just didn’t understand the essence of what made the original so compelling.
The story itself is rather simple, Light Turner (Wolff) randomly finds a Death Note, a book that causes the death of whoever’s name is written in it. Along with the book comes a god of death (Dafoe) who can only be seen by the owner of the book. Light immediately sets out punishing the evildoers of the world, criminals who have managed to escape the punishment they deserve. This catches the attention of super detective L (Stanfield), who sets off to catch the man responsible for these killings.
It’s supposed to be a battle of brilliance. Two great minds playing a dangerous game of chess, much like Sherlock Holmes and his nemesis James Moriarty. The thrill comes from watching moves and countermoves as they try to out smart each other. None of this is evident though in the film. Of course, L is faced with the challenge of discovering and catching Light, but none of their rivalries shines. This alone is the biggest let down of the film. Instead, both of the characters a metaphorically neutered and over simplified in order to fit everything into 2 hours. Even if the anime isn’t taken into account, the two characters are never given the fire they need in order to make them memorable. The actor’s performances though are quite compelling. It’s just too bad they aren’t given any essence to work with.
Despite my complaints, there are some parts of Death Note that I truly did enjoy. I already mentioned Dafoe as a perfect god of death (though his “cackle” is used so much it borders on abuse). Paul Nakauchi is the other highlight of the film as Watari, L’s caregiver, and right-hand man. In many ways, his take on the character is far superior to the anime. These two alone though aren’t enough to carry the entire weight of the movie on their shoulders.
Death Note is a stylized film, whose strength lies in its imagery. However, it’s meant to be a tale that about brains, not beauty. The writers never truly manage to grasp the original characters true motivations and instead try to create simplified versions that would make them more easily digestible. These simplified versions though are such tremendous disappointments in the end, that Death Note never manages to grab hold of the viewer and engage them. Instead, it’s a passive story that leaves little impression and most importantly never manages to be thought provoking.
Even after taking time to think about the movie, my initial disappointment never dissipated. Instead, I feel almost resentful that such a great story was mishandled on such a grand level. It’s almost as if no one took the time to watch the source material. I wish I could say that my feelings regarding the Death Note film were just because I’m an anime snob, but I approached the film with open arms, excited to see what might be possible. Instead, it’s exactly like every other anime adaptation. Disappointing not just as an adaptation, but as a movie as well.