I’m not sure who Death Note 2017 movie is for. The new movie, now available on Netflix, has two really great hooks from two entirely different aspects: To start off, it’s an adaptation of an internationally popular manga by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, which in turn was adapted into an internationallly popular anime sage. (Which you can also find on Netflix.)
Moreover, it’s the latest film from Adam Wingard, who has made a name for himself making critically acclaimed, subversive horror films that are consistently surprising and satisfying. Death Note movie is a letdown on both fronts—as an adaptation, it’s mediocre, and as an Adam Wingard film, it’s frustratingly straightforward.
Death Note story involves Light Turner (Nat Wolff), an angry young nerd who bumps into a supernatural notebook named the Death Note that — with extensive rules and conditions written on the first few pages — allows him to kill anyone by picturing their face and writing their name on its pages. Light, whose father is a cop, then uses his newfound super ability to start imposing his own version of grim justice on the world, eliminating the criminals of the world with a stroke of his pen, and styling himself as Kira, an almighty lord of murder. But in his desire to be stood for his actions, Light catches the attention of L (Lakeith Stanfield), a bizarre but brilliant secret detective who has the backing of the FBI, and also is followed by Ryuk (Willem Defoe), a god of death who created the Death Note nearly entirely to mess with humankind.
Manga fans already catch the story, but for the sake of newbies, Netflix’s latest Death Note adaptation refreshes the plot of a sinister leather-bound novel that grants its keeper the ability to kill anyone on earth, merely by scribbling 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 carries on, “Death Note” is about as grim as it becomes, indulging the fantasy of taking bloody revenge on the high school bully, or punishing the sleazy local crime boss who took your mom’s life (probably a bit less typical, in terms of your average teen grudge). But there’s an ominous appeal there, specifically as the main character, Light Turner (“Paper Towns” star Nat Wolff), tries to occupy Ryuk in the most righteous way, identifying and killing 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.
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, briliantly co-written by Charley Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides and Jeremy Slater, is a combined knot of loose ends and half-explained devices, but Wingard carries it out with his touch, particularly where Light’s distant executions are concerned, forming elaborate Rube Goldberg-esque scenes (reminiscent of the “Final Destination” films) for each of the deaths. Though planned for the small screen, Wingard has brought this assignment an appearance and feel (and score, noted to Atticus and Leopold Ross) worthy of the big screen, which will do far better justice to its black-on-black color scheme than most TV sets.
Before things turn gory, Ryuk’s dramatic entrance reminds us of the great Amblin films of the 1980s, as a mini-tornado turns the classroom where Light is serving detention almost 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.
Based on the records, only he (or she) who owns the Death Note can see Ryuk, and even though the creature design is amazing — with his feathered collar, jagged grin and gleaming eyes like jack-o’-lantern, he outshines even the “Donnie Darko” bunny — it’s the strange way they’ve recreated him to reflect Dafoe’s already intense features that will bring you nightmares for nights to come (not mentioning the actor’s naturally demonic voice).
And yet, however threatening Ryuk seems and sounds, he never really brings on the threat of brilliant Light, whose main adversary is a ridiculous super-sleuth named L (Lakeith Stanfield), who’s entirely 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 Death Note 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. Hardly does Ryuk misinterpret or otherwise wrong one of Light’s orders, and in the end, as Celine Dion’s “The Power of Love” ironically featured over the open-ended ending, it’s not at all entirely clear what the character has achieved by his journey — or even what his own fate is in the end.