Director: Adam Wingard
Screenplay: Charles Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides, Jeremy Slater
Starring: Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield, Margaret Qualley, Shea Whigham, Paul Nakauchi, Jason Liles, Willem Dafoe
Runtime: 100 Minutes
If this year’s Ghost in the Shell left anything on the memories of people it’s that adapting Japanese manga for western audiences is never going to leave either side of cultural and geographical opposition happy. Tsugumi Ohba’s psychological detective thriller Death Note has such a bondage to its heritage, with the use of a powerful supernatural weapon – the “Death Note” – in which the names of individuals entered into the book meet grizzly ends at the author’s behest. It feels tied to the presence of spirits of folklore and words of power that feel inherently Japanese, but its high school setting and oscillating lightness in tone could lend itself to western youth culture nicely.
Unfortunately not only has the approach not worked, it almost entirely guts the story of the characters drives by compacting the scale of the work into a 90-minute space of decidedly uneconomic storytelling.
The good to come from the adaptation really only occurs in the first act; where we are introduced to our Light Turner (Nat Wolff), the “Death Note” and the demonic Ryuk (Willem Dafoe). Revelling in the silliness of the premise for a short while as the film plays to the violent surprise of its over-the-top gore in Final Destination-esque fashion.
But the moment the enjoyable setup is established, the entire film loses momentum and energy. Not only does the forced condensing of an entire series of books leave many plot elements either half-realised or painfully rushed in the edit, the characterisation of Light and the drama surrounding the love interest (Margaret Qualley) almost completely changes or disappears without warning, transforming from an outcast into a social crusader and angel of death figure in near minutes. The same extends to Lakeith Stanfield as L, whose role as his antagonistic foil feels underutilised and intrusive to a story that should either be bigger to accommodate him or cut out entirely.
Whatever is to be said of the film overall though there are two leading elements that keep the film (and the audience) conscious; that being Adam Wingard’s stylish approach to directing and shooting like the upgraded version of a low rent 80s trashy horror movie, and Willem Dafoe’s casting as the voice of Ryuk. It’s a hammy and enjoyably rough performance much like some of his better blockbuster work, and the design of the character is faithful, spiky and dark by relying on shadows to disguise the admittedly shoddy CGI animations of the face.
Death Note starts well before verging right off the tracks plowing into nonsense city. The final scenes are flabbergasting and it bottles on its prospects before they even have a chance to settle. Despite some good performances and Wingard’s direction, this is yet another case of the original text being lost in translation.