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Death Note review: Netflix’s live-action adaptation strips away everything that made the original version work

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It’s a disappointing turn for a well-loved franchise

Death Note movie photo Photo: James Dittiger / Netflix

Netflix’s Death Note can be summed up by the film’s first murder, which takes place hardly 10 minutes in. Light Turner (Nat Wolff), newly in possession of a book that lets its owner kill anyone whose name and face they know, picks a target. He writes the name down, and the victim dies by decapitation moments later, through a twisted series of circumstances.

This murder — rapid, weightless, and unnecessarily gory — is Death Note in a nutshell.

Death Note is an adaptation of the popular anime and manga franchise of the same name. The film, like its source material, dictates that anyone with the magical notebook is granted the power to mete out justice as they see fit. After it literally falls from the sky, with no explanation ever offered, Light begins using it to kill people he deems evil. Then he invents Kira, a god of justice who claims credit for the killings. Eventually, he attracts the attention of law enforcement, especially an eccentric detective who just goes by “L” (Lakeith Stanfield).

Netflix’s take on the cat-and-mouse game of murder is riddled with problems from start to finish. If the film’s writers or director Adam Wingard envisioned Light as a likable character, the on-screen version is a spectacular failure. Light falls somewhere between an unhinged sadist and whiny teenager. Given Wolff’s portrayal, it’s often hard to tell whether a given line is meant to be comedic or serious. Mostly, he speaks with a pained, constipated look that doesn’t fit someone contemplating the complexities of murder. But his performance just builds on the fact that his motivations for using the “death note” are never especially strong in the first place. A few throwaway lines address that issue — his mother was murdered, so he has a vague desire to kill “bad guys” — but these topics are never explored on any significant level.

That basic lack of motivation extends to nearly every character in the film, from Light’s father to his accomplice girlfriend, Mia (Margaret Qualley). Mia has a large part to play in the story that her shallow character never earns. Furthermore, her desire to help Light murder people is never explained — at best, she seems like a bored teenager with unresolved anger issues. Light and Mia make out and commit murder seconds apart, without an ounce of remorse or humanity. Their love is central to the plot, and yet they fight and whine relentlessly throughout the film, with no real romantic chemistry.

Death Note’s characters tend to bleat out their innermost feelings in bursts of forced exposition, but those feelings aren’t always reflected in their actions. There’s a constant clash between their lives, and how they explain their lives. And while they’re all hollow adaptations, the film suffers the biggest loss through its lead. In the anime version of the story, Light is a charismatic, popular student who discovers his dark side, and the strength of his villainy stems from his charm. He schemes while hiding in plain sight. He uses those closest to him to get what he wants. His fall from grace belongs not just to him, but those who love him.

Wolff’s version of the character, on the other hand, is simply a stock loner with a reputation for acting out. He’s arrogant and annoying. In a curious turn from the source material, Wolff’s Light also seems eager to inflict violent deaths upon strangers. Instead of relying on the notebook’s stock death, a simple heart attack, this version of Light plans out detailed, grotesquely public endings for many of his victims: decapitations, roof-jumping mass suicides, and so on. The film revels in these moments, with Wingard showing bodies exploding on pavement every chance he gets. His unexplained brutality makes him a protagonist who’s too simplistic and obvious to be interesting.

This gets to the core problem of Wingard’s Death Note. His vision of the worldwide remote-murder phenomenon is uninspired and disappointing. In its original form, Death Note is compelling because it’s a game of wits. The death note is full of rules, and Light is constantly testing the bounds of his power by exploring the limitations those rules place on him. His defiance makes each evasion of the rules clever and interesting, and every gain by L — who’s trying to participate in a game where he can’t see the field — all the more impressive.

This conflict allows for a dynamic relationship between Light and L. There’s a grudging respect between them, and they recognize each other as worthy foes. But the film never gives Light and L the opportunity to develop a similar rapport. Lakeith Stanfield, so excellent in Atlanta and Jordan Peele’s Get Out, is wasted in the part. He’s hardly a real threat to Light, whose irritating nature does more damage than anything. Their encounters are anticlimactic affairs, free of real tension. And Wolff’s version of Light is neither clever nor gifted in any obvious way, making every moment he escapes capture more puzzling than the last.

And as for Ryuk, the god of death voiced by Willem Dafoe? Barely a presence of real importance. What little time Dafoe is given as the apple-eating Shinigami is well-acted and feels authentic to the character. There’s just not enough of his presence or his motivations to make him important to the story, except as a special effect.

Wingard’s film misunderstands what makes this series great on a fundamental level. The plot moves at breakneck speed, at times making it feel like a recap of the original story, rather than its own narrative. It bastardizes the basic elements of the series to better serve its empty-calorie interpretation. It’s Death Note by way of Final Destination, a film more focused on cyberpunk-esque visuals and crunchy synth than on any kind of substance.