Death Note review – overstuffed Netflix horror is a flawed but fun emo ride

This chaotic Hollywood adaptation of the celebrated Japanese series has enough going on for an entire season – but there are still reckless thrills to be had

A long line of sharpened knives have already been out in force for this one. Perhaps for a legitimate reason. Perhaps not. But before a frame of Netflix’s ambitious franchise-starter had even been completed, there was widespread anger over what was seen as a whitewashed take on unavoidably Japanese source material. Asian and Asian American actors have long been de-prioritized in Hollywood, and this latest example was seen as yet another insult after the recent instances Ghost in the Shell, Doctor Strange and The Great Wall.

Death Note, a multi-strand saga spawned from a manga series that’s led to movies, video games and a TV show in Japan, has always seemed like prime real estate for a US intervention (rights were purchased by Warner Bros in 2009 and at one point Shane Black was attached). There’s a juicy wish fulfillment concept that’s easily tweakable for sequels and a wise-cracking villain who leaps out from the screen further than most of his contemporary peers. In trying to translate so much mythology into just one 100-minute movie, an awful lot is lost but given the sorry state of the horror genre, even the vaguest of glimmers is worth something.

Light Turner (Nat Wolff) is a high schooler living in the background. He’s picked on at school, largely friendless and still hasn’t forgiven his cop father for failing to bring his mother’s killer to justice. So when one day a mysterious notepad quite literally falls into his hands, emblazoned with the words “Death Note”, he’s eager for whatever change it might bring. After flipping open the pages, he’s greeted by Ryuk (voiced by Willem Dafoe), a death demon who informs him of the power that’s new been bestowed upon him: if Light writes someone’s name in the book, they will die.

Initially starting off small (so long, school bullies!), Light starts to expand the death toll, with the help of overeager classmate Mia (Margaret Qualley). The pair become avenging angels, targeting those who have harmed others and their global killing spree soon grabs the attention of eccentric detective L (Lakeith Stanfield) who is determined to uncover the method behind all of the madness.

What’s initially noteworthy about Death Note is that it’s a proud, flashy member of Netflix’s latest wave of slick, bigger-budget original movies and it lands amid mixed company. While Okja dazzled, War Machine fizzled and Death Note arguably lands somewhere between the two. Director Adam Wingard (inexplicably adored for overstylized throwback thrillers You’re Next and The Guest, and understandably loathed for his regrettable Blair Witch sequel/reboot/assault) has a nifty eye for the macabre and, working on a larger scale than ever before, he successfully creates a distinctive universe to house the mayhem at play.

The setup allows for a series of frantic Final Destination-esque set-pieces and unlike this summer’s shoddy, similarly themed Wish Upon, there’s no teen friendly rating restraining Wingard from going full Grand Guignol with the gore. As Light gets accustomed, and soon addicted, to his nihilistic superpower, there’s fun for the viewer in the art of his discovery although the relentless pace soon becomes problematic. While not hampered by certification, Wingard is held back somewhat by the framework of a film. There’s enough here for a 10-part series, not hugely surprising given the breadth of Death Note material that’s come before, and rather than making us eager for a sequel, we’re left breathless and frustrated that so much of the establishing narrative has been so carelessly rushed (one particular montage is so stuffed with intriguing imagery that it demands a rewind).

The runaway plot also means that the characters are left frequently underserved, shifts in motivation and morality happening within the blink of an eye. The young cast manage well enough, with Short Term 12 and Atlanta breakout Stanfield of particular interest (his shadowy, sleep-deprived pursuer deserving of his own origins tale), but they deserve more than what they’ve been left to work with. The finale in particular, despite an ambitious set piece, doesn’t really gel, the swell of emo romance proving to be less tasty than the reckless horror that came before.

The decision to relocate the action to the US, using a cast of almost universally non-Asian actors (Paul Nakuchi is a rare exception), has arrived at an unfortunate time for an industry that really should be doing better to improve inclusivity but, if anything, it recalls the many J-horror remakes that landed around the early 00s. Similarly, the attempts to translate some of the more location-specific elements of the original land with a thud (Light’s codename is Kira, explained away here clumsily) yet the other idiosyncrasies do end up differentiating it from so many other teen-led horror films of late (Dafoe’s apple-munching demon is a particular delight).

Death Note is likely to find a warm welcome from Netflix’s teen contingent, who also helped to make 13 Reasons Why one of the service’s biggest hits. Horror fans will also find Wingard’s stylish, gruesome direction a plus. But whether hardcore fans of the original will warm to the update is questionable. Given the more detailed adaptations that have come before, there’s arguably little added here. In their latest stab at a blockbuster, Netflix have failed to understand that sometimes more is more.

  • Death Note is now streaming on Netflix

Contributor

Benjamin Lee

The GuardianTramp

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