After Warner Bros didn’t feel like they could take a risk on a mid-range film about a magic notebook that kills people, their loss meant that Netflix swooped in to produce Adam Wingard’s adaptation of the famed Japanese Manga Death Note. Its popularity meant that it was no surprise that Netflix saw an instant audience in this one, but more viewers increases the chance of more backlash.
Western adaptations of Japanese fiction are a trend expected to continue, and this is just one more on that factory conveyor belt that, unfortunately, doesn’t work out. Wingard stated in one interview that “Death Note is about as Japanese as you get in every way”, so he already knew the mammoth task of reinventing something that balances fresh ideas while keeping to the source material. You can see from early on that Wingard has tried to channel Gylenhaal’s Donnie Darko for his Light Turner, played here by Nat Wolff, but he overdoes it by trying to involve little mannerisms and quirks from the anime that would never pass in Western live action.
Even with all of its problems, on occasion you do get the sense that there may be a decent story with potential sitting in the shadows. Margeret Qualley’s Mia is an interestingly unhinged sociopath in the making, and Willem Dafoe’s Ryuk, a perfect casting, drops a few lines that could pave interesting exposition, but there’s no time to work with it. In the end, this is a manga and/or anime that is attempted to be condensed into a short narrative with the same characters that get fleshed out over weeks in their original matierial. Wingard’s Death Note is far from perfect, and quite far from acceptable. Where it needs to go, is back to Japan.