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.
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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.