Film Review: Nat Wolff in ‘Death Note’ on Netflix

Death Note
Courtesy of Netflix

American horror director Adam Wingard takes a page from 'Donnie Darko' in his stylish, U.S.-based adaptation of the macabre Japanese manga.

Manga fans already know the drill, but for the sake of newcomers, Netflix’s new “Death Note” adaptation refreshes the story of a sinister leather-bound book that gives its keeper the power to kill anyone on earth, simply by writing that person’s name and the desired cause of death in its pages. The book comes with a crazy number of rules, dizzyingly complicated to keep straight, and also with a freaky death god named Ryuk, who looks like a demonic, Tim Burton-ized version of Willem Dafoe (so it stands to reason that they cast Willem Dafoe to play him).

As wish fulfillment goes, “Death Note” is about as dark as it gets, indulging the fantasy of taking bloody vengeance on the high school bully, or punishing the sleazy local crime boss who murdered your mom (perhaps a bit less typical, in terms of your average teen grudge). But there’s a sinister appeal there, especially as the main character, Light Turner (“Paper Towns” star Nat Wolff), tries to employ Ryuk in the most righteous way, identifying and eliminating the world’s most wanted criminals.

Good riddance, right? Well, not exactly. When Light uses the book to get the girl, enlisting the help of his beautiful/morbid classmate Mia (Margaret Qualley, channeling Kristin Stewart’s tortured “Twilight” persona), “Death Note” devolves into a supernatural — and super-gruesome — update of the old Leopold and Loeb paradigm, where two young people use their self-anointed superiority to justify murder. That may be the reality of what “Death Note” is selling, but the movie never quite reckons with just how twisted a concept it’s peddling, and that’s easily the scariest thing about it.

First published in 2003, Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata’s pitch-black manga previously inspired three live-action movies, an anime series, several video games and an entire line of macabre merchandise. Still, despite a run on Adult Swim, this is the first time “Death Note” will register on the radar of most Americans, and rather than comparing it to the Japanese source, they’ll most likely be reminded of Richard Kelly’s 2001 cult classic “Donnie Darko,” from which director Adam Wingard (“You’re Next”) has taken a page.

Clearly, that’s the stylistic template the helmer had in mind, conjuring a similar adolescent Goth/outsider vibe around tortured high school brainiac Light, who’s just finished doing a classmate’s homework when the clouds darken over the schoolyard, a supernatural wind blows and the book tumbles from the sky to land at his feet (not as dramatic as a fallen jet turbine, but it’ll do). There’s no explanation why Light was chosen, but he doesn’t put up much resistance to the idea of managing his own death god — when in fact, Ryuk often seems to be the one manipulating him. In any case, Light concocts a clever scheme, masking his remote killings as the work of a vengeful deity named Kira, in order to throw off authorities.

The script, credited to Charley Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides and Jeremy Slater, is a snarl of loose ends and half-explained devices, but Wingard executes it with style, especially where Light’s remote executions are concerned, orchestrating elaborate Rube Goldberg-like sequences (reminiscent of the “Final Destination” movies) for each of the kills. Though destined for the small screen, Wingard has given this assignment a look and feel (and score, courtesy of Atticus and Leopold Ross) deserving of the big screen, which will do far better justice to its black-on-black color scheme than most TV sets.

Before things turn bloody, Ryuk’s dramatic entrance recalls the great Amblin movies of the 1980s, as a mini-tornado turns the classroom where Light is serving detention nearly inside out. One of the demon’s signatures is his insatiable desire for juicy red apples, which Wingard teases in the foreground, while allowing Ryuk to lurk out of focus or in silhouette for most of the movie.

According to the rules, only he (or she) who wields the Death Note can see Ryuk, and though the creature design is fantastic — with his feathered collar, jagged grin and glowing jack-o’-lantern eyes, he outdoes even the “Donnie Darko” bunny — it’s the uncanny way they’ve adapted him to reflect Dafoe’s already intense features that will haunt your dreams for nights to come (to say nothing of the actor’s naturally demonic voice).

And yet, however frightening Ryuk looks and sounds, he never really delivers on the threat of outsmarting Light, whose main adversary is a ridiculous super-sleuth called L (Lakeith Stanfield), who’s safe from the Death Note as long as Light doesn’t know his real name. L travels all the way from Japan and barges into the police investigation conveniently being conducted by Light’s father (Shea Whigham), and using powers of deduction that defy all logic, manages to identify Light as the one responsible for Kira’s killing, though he can’t quite figure how he’s doing it.

By this point, “Death Note” has too easily breezed past more than 400 trial-free executions, though Wolff (who’s getting a bit long in the tooth to play teens) was a fine choice to play a character we’re meant to forgive for this staggering number of murders — even if it’s a stretch too far when he focuses on trying to eliminate L.

In theory, Ryuk is a trickster, à la David Bowie’s Goblin King in “Labyrinth,” but the movie curiously lacks the “be careful what you wish for” dimension so common in this genre, from literary classic “The Monkey’s Paw” to the wish-they-were-better “Wishmaster” horror franchise. Never once does Ryuk misinterpret or otherwise twist one of Light’s orders, and by the end, as Celine Dion’s “The Power of Love” ironically unspools over the open-ended finale, it’s not at all clear what the character has accomplished by his journey — or even what his own fate is in the end.

Film Review: Nat Wolff in 'Death Note' on Netflix

Reviewed online, Los Angeles, Aug. 21, 2017. Running time: 100 MIN.

Production

A Netflix release and presentation of a Netflix Original Film, in association with LP Etnertainment, Vertigo Entertainment. Producers: Roy Lee, Dan Lin, Masi Oka, Jason Hoffs, Ted Srandos. Executive producers: Pauline Fischer, Sarh Bremner, MIri Yoon, Jonathan Eirich, Brendan Ferguson, John Powers Middleton. Co-producer: Ryan Halprin.

Crew

Director: Adam Wingard. Screenplay, Charley Parlapanides & Vlas Parlapanides and Jeremy Slater, based on the manga by Tsugumi Ohba, Takeshi Obata in Shonen Jump. Camera (color, widescreen): David Tattersall. Editor: Louis Cioffi. Music: Atticus Ross, Leopold Ross.

With

Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield, Margaret Qualley, Shea Whigham, Paul Nakauchi, Jason Liles, Willem Dafoe.

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  1. Kim says:

    The worst anime adaptation I’ve ever seen

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  5. Joel Bridge says:

    I literally grew up reading this manga as a teenager from the age of 16 waiting for every translation to come out. I have mixed feelings about this application it feels somewhat of the source material but Loose would be the word I would use and it didn’t get interesting until L got into the scene. The thing in all the other app thaitation particular the manga light is this Super Genius he is like Evil Genius Mastermind with the power of the death note. The elaborate should he pulls in the manga is ridiculous and you don’t start seeing that to the very end. Which is somewhat realistic he comes off like a peen same for his relationship with Mia. Is a lot more manipulative in the movie The mia manga where she’s just a devoted. The fellow playing L fantastic he did the role phenomenal. Overall very mixed feelings

  6. alexkeliikoa says:

    As a fan of the orignal Death Note the movie from the beginning irratated me by ruining characters and key parts of the whole series. Astetically it’s pleasing seeing what they did with Ryuk but plot wise it’s complete crap just showing that America really does ruin most things that were loved of the anime. They took out details that were crucial to the whole part of the well thought out process of what made the anime a thriller to watch, what made everyone who loves the anime on the edge of their seats. I have nothing against the actor’s but they over did most characters behavior and ruined them now some parts were spot on but most weren’t and we’re just irratating.

  7. Bexe says:

    This feels more like a recap than a review, there’s a lot of objective description but no subjective opinions beyond design and casting. It feels as though you’re stalling until the public has come to a consensus on whether they enjoyed it or not.

    • frederick@dreamerchant.com says:

      Producers/Distributors who will not spend the huge sums necessary to advertise or otherwise promote (film festivals) a motion picture project have turned to so-called film critics to “expose” the product to the public–without opinion–to promulgate the title and (hopefully) interest in title/images.

      Film critics who allow themselves to be exploited in this way risk credibility with readers and exposure by observers such as Bexe.

      Film-review-as-advertising may be trending across the Internet per websites like Variety–and have been for some time, now–so readers beware and commenters alert the public where and when possible.

  8. nerdrage says:

    Open-ended finale, huh? My bet is that Netflix is waiting for the numbers to come in and then if they’re strong, will either make a TV series based on the movie or just produce more movies (the distinction is sorta trivial, either way it’s a series).

    My bet is that this will be a hit for Netflix. It appeals to the same audience as 13 Reasons Why. Fans of the original Death Note despise it, but they aren’t the majority.

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