Light Turner, a bright student, stumbles across a mystical notebook that has the power to kill any person whose name he writes in it. Light decides to launch a secret crusade to rid the streets of criminals. Soon, the student-turned-vigilante finds himself pursued by a famous detective known only by the alias L.
Death Note is based on the wildly popular manga and anime series by Tsugumi Oba and Takeshi Obata. This adaptation from director Adam Wingard isn’t the high budget live-action version fans have been waiting for — it is something different, and you have to go in knowing that to even try watching it. With that said, Death Note is neither a good adaption, nor a good film in a general sense.
From its opening moments, filled with shots of Seattle and the American flag, Adam Wingard does nothing but try to scream “this is an American take on the property, don’t @ me!” (his Twitter has been blowing up since the movie’s release). You’ll find, however, that moving the property and telling the Death Note story in America is pointless. Nothing interesting is done with American culture to make it interesting, and there was stuff they could have done, sure, if you know the source material. These opening shots are misdirection and excuses for what becomes apparent whitewashing of the material, as nothing done with the characters ever required a change of race, or moving the location the story takes place in.
The Death Note anime is one of my favourite pieces of cat-and-mouse detective storytelling I’ve ever watched — this Death Note has none of that, or none of what makes the concept interesting.
Light Turner gets the death note dropped in front of him; Light starts writing names in it, killing people in gruesome fashion, starting with a high school bully; L starts investigating for the killer; Death Note ends with a huge action set-piece. All of this is squeezed so tightly into a 100 minute running time as well. Death Note runs at such a speeding pace towards its finish line that it could give Game of Thrones’ seventh season a run for its money.
Light Turner’s characterisation is completely all over the place. He’s a smart kid, as we learn quickly with the opening of the movie showing him doing other kids’ school work for money. He is also a loner, seemingly has zero friends until he gets on good terms with Mia and — well, he’s your typical high school kid with issues from a lot of American movies really. But the most annoying thing about Light is that he never earns the position he ends up in by the film’s end, and it doesn’t really make sense knowing him in this movie. It’s like his end point was decided first, and then the rest of the movie was written around that in a rushed fashion.
Mia is the most interesting and fleshed out character in the movie and earns her story arc, and it makes sense for her character. She’s the more compelling of the pair, as she grows more and more obsessed with the power the death note can bring her. I wish we got more of her — in fact, she should have been the lead and Light should have been the sidekick.
L, the fan favourite character from the source material, brings most of his known traits to the screen: he eats lots of lollies, he sits on chairs funny, he grabs objects oddly. However, they just seem off in this world and they never work well with the direction L is taken later in the movie. A lot of the odd things that make L who he is are often explained in throwaway lines and I wonder if it would have just been better to change L a lot more, like the rest of the movie has done with other characters anyway.
Nat Wolff gives a terrible, laughable performance as Light. His performance in several key scenes is so off-putting that it can quickly ruin the whole movie. When he first meets Ryuk — the death god who gave him the death note — the scene some quickly turns into a laughing fest thanks to Nat’s reaction.