Imagine a notebook falls from the sky and lands at your feet, face up, with the words “Death Note” written on the front. You take it, look inside, and find a series of rules detailing an immeasurable power within the notebook: the ability to kill whoever’s name is written inside. All you need is a face and a name. What do you do with that power?
That’s the overarching theme of “Death Note.” Or, at least it was in the anime.
When I first heard that an English version of “Death Note,” an anime that remained in the top 10 anime of all time (MyAnimeList.com) for nearly a decade, I was curious to see how the Americanized version would turn out. I did not expect much.
I was given even less.
As anime to live action film adaptations usually go, the end result is typically a dumpster fire. In the case of Adam Wingard and Charlie Parlapanides’ “Death Note,” it’s a raging inferno that swallows all those unfortunate enough to watch it.
Released to Netflix on August 25, 2017, “Death Note” stars Nat Wolff (Nickelodeon’s “The Naked Brothers Band”), Lakeith Stanfield (“Short Term 12,” “Straight Outta Compton”), Margaret Qualley (HBO’s “The Leftovers”), and Willem Dafoe (“Spider-Man (2001)”, “The Boondock Saints”). Of the main cast, only Stanfield and Dafoe gave noteworthy performances.
Leaving the shortcomings of the adaptation aspect aside, of which there are several, the film falls completely flat in regards to technical ability. Writing is less than poor, performances are severely lacking in quality, and the editing and pacing of the film is laughable at best, cringeworthy at worst.
As the film is an Americanized adaptation of an anime – Japanese animation – the cultural differences and artistic liberties taken are forgivable. Realistically, one cannot take a 30+ episode long TV series and compress it all into an hour and forty minutes and have it turn out great. One might ask why not consider creating a miniseries instead, but I digress.
The name changes are fine. You wouldn’t find a white, American high school girl named Misa Amane, but you could probably find a Mia Sutton (Qualley).
For whatever reason, though, the protagonist of the anime received only half a name change for the film. Light Yagami became Light Turner (Wolff). It’s not a significant enough change to warrant doing it in the first place.
For all the other liberties the creators take in adapting the source material, there isn’t enough of a sense of change. The creators don’t seem like they wanted to tell the original story, but they also don’t seem like they cared enough to fully craft their own version either. The plot suffers because of this.
The performances of the cast leave an ocean’s worth to be desired. Nat Wolff gives an unconvincing performance as a brooding, highly intelligent judge-jury-executioner with a skewed sense of justice, but he does remarkably well as a whiny, power hungry weakling that takes his insecurities out on the rest of the world.
Margaret Qualley doesn’t even seem like she wants to give a decent or convincing performance, which is unfortunate knowing that that wasn’t her or the director’s intent. From unchanging facial expressions that stay on screen for comedic amounts of time, to lines given without a hint of emotion, Qualley phones it in harder than a psychic hotline.
Where the protagonist and love interest suffer, the antagonists thrive. L (Stanfield), the world’s greatest (and youngest) detective is one of the only entertaining parts of the film, as well as Ryuk (Dafoe) the Shinigami (a god of death), Light’s “friend” and keeper of the Death Note.
Stanfield is quirky, charismatic, and a genuine palette cleanser from the awfulness of the rest of the film. His intelligence is also persistent throughout the film, not shoehorned in during the last ten minutes of the film like Wolff’s.
Dafoe’s voice drips with malcontent as he pushes Light to use the Death Note and start him down his path to criminal insanity and self-proclaimed godhood. It’s eerie, grating, and uncomfortable to listen to, and it’s great. Dafoe’s performance is inarguably the best out of everyone, and definitely the most convincing. You can tell Dafoe was enjoying himself, and cared enough to truly get into character with the way he laughs and delivers his lines.
It’s unfortunate that, even with Stanfield and Dafoe’s performances, the writing they had to work with was sub-subpar. Little thought went into the script, especially with the conversion from anime to film.
If you get the chance to watch Adam Wingard’s “Death Note,” don’t. There are much better things to watch. Taking the fact that it’s a live action film based on an anime out of the equation, the film is objectively bad. Don’t waste your time.