Film Review: ‘Death Note’ Loses Much in Translation

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Wasted potential curses “Death Note” at almost all turns. From the problematic Americanization of the story to a tone that’s all over the place, very little consistently works. That’s a shame too, since this adaptation of the classic Japanese manga had the chance to truly be great. The themes in this story are deep and worthy of thought. However, none of that happens. Moral issues are blown through to get to another death sequence, with only the barest of considerations for what’s happening. Efforts to be cool keep this from being grounded or really any good at all. “Death Note” is dead on arrival. What a disappointment. Netflix made a bold move in acquiring this, but there was clearly a reason it was available to them in the first place.

“Death Note” unfortunately is another example of an American remake losing what made the original special in the translation. That’s just one issue here, as filmmaker Adam Wingard seems to have no handle on the material whatsoever. From ridiculous tonal shifts to any number of genres being blown through, it’s a real mess. Wingard seems to both be rushing to get all of the original’s story into an under 100 minutes feature, while also desperately stretching other elements out in hopes of a franchise. There’s nothing wrong with laying seeds for a sequel. You do need to have a quality first installment though, and this decidedly lacks that.

The story wastes no time setting anything up. Set in the Pacific Northwest instead of Japan, we’re introduced to high school student Light Turner (Nat Wolff). Bullied and roped into doing homework for the cool kids, he’s a prime target to take possession of a notebook with the power to kill. Lucky for him, it literally falls from the sky right into his lap. One quick look at the rules, an appearance by death god Ryuk (voice of Willem Dafoe), plus only the briefest of hesitation by Light, and we have one dead bully on our hands. This is due to merely writing their name in the book and thinking of their face, along with an explanation of the death. Convenient, right?

Light follows that up with the killing of the gangster who killed his mother, doing what his police officer father (Shea Whigham) never could. Not content to go it alone, he reveals his newfound power to schoolmate Mia (Margaret Qualley), who almost immediately begins dating him, partially due to a lust for the power the notebook possesses.

Once Light and Mia have a taste for power, they begin taking out criminals all over the world, dubbing themselves Kira. This puts them on the radar of L (Lakeith Stanfield), a young detective utilized by a secret society to hunt down those using the notebook. As L begins to close in on Kira, and by extension Light and Mia, they find themselves in a tricky predicament. Light favors abandoning ship, while Mia has much darker designs. All the while, Ryuk looks on with glee. If it all sounds like it could be fun, rest assured that the execution was thoroughly bungled.

Despite a solid cast, the performances in “Death Note” are far too broad. No one here was given any boundaries, so they end up all over the place. Nat Wolff has moments of realism, but then screams in terror like he’s in a horror parody. Wolff is a talented actor, but the material does him no favors. Margaret Qualley does her best as well, but her character is never given a believable story beat. Her arc is positively infuriating. As for Willem Dafoe, he chews the scenery and spits it out. This voice work is a total 180 from what he’s doing in “The Florida Project,” but that kind of goes without saying.

The only person to really come out close to unscathed is Lakeith Stanfield, who goes all in on quirks and tics, making his character the one closes to fitting this interpretation of the material. A thousand miles removed from his grounded breakthrough performance in “Short Term 12,” this is Stanfield knowing the kind of film he’s in and having fun.

Supporting players here are as shortchanged as the main cast members. Jason Liles, Paul Nakauchi, Masi Oka, and the aforementioned Shea Whigham are afterthoughts. Whigham especially is wasted. “Death Note” focuses on Wolff, though Stanfield’s time on screen is at least the most interesting. It isn’t good, but there’s a vibe on display. That’s something, right? He’s best in show, with Dafoe’s antics also providing some very mild amusement.

Director Adam Wingard has quickly gone from an emerging genre master to a filmmaker in a clear slump. The promise of “The Guest” and “You’re Next” is nowhere to be found. Instead, the work has devolved into the disappointment of “Blair Witch” and now the mediocrity of “Death Note”. Perhaps it’s the lack of his usual screenwriter Simon Barrett here? Probably not, considering Barrett was involved with “Blair Witch,” but it could at least be a factor. The scribes for this one are the trio of Charley Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides, and Jeremy Slater. The script is borderline terrible too, so they certainly have something to answer for. Wingard’s directorial choices leave much to be desired, but he wasn’t set up to succeed with this remake.

While the score by Atticus Ross and Leopold Ross is fine, the musical choices on the soundtrack are bizarre. Serious moments have unintentionally funny song picks, which kind of sums this all up. Whatever major decision needed to be made, the wrong one was almost always decided upon. It torpedoes the potential that this film had. There’s a really interesting movie to be made here, even with the Americanization at hand. Wingard and company just had no clue how to pull it off.

In the end, “Death Note” falls far short of expectations. Fans of the original probably will be able to speak to where the specific transgressions reside, but even newbies can clearly see something is very wrong here. Netflix will likely find itself an audience on their streaming service for this one, but getting folks into theaters will be a struggle. They struggle with that regardless, but in the case of “Death Note,” the lack of quality will be what dooms it to failure. It’s doubtful there will be a sequel, but if there is, hopefully it settles on one consistent tone. That would at least put it on the right track. As for this one? It’s DOA.

“Death Note” is distributed by Netflix and opens in theaters and will be streaming on August 25.

GRADE: (★★)

Trailer:
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0SiyGOyAlW4&w=560&h=315]

  • Joey Magidson

    What a major letdown.