In a strange series of events that will likely only become more common, the biggest movie of the week is debuting on Netflix. The sort of weird genre mash-up that would comfortably fit into a late summer theatrical release, ‘Death Note’ was abandoned by Warner Bros. at the last hour and is now one of the most ambitious Netflix features instead.
Given all the white-washing controversies springing out of the anime community about the project, Warner is probably happy to be spared the headache, even if it missed out on a decent little genre romp.
The script is a condensed and Americanized version of a long manga series, so as expected the narrative can be a little convoluted. The basics are that a high school dork named Light (Nat Wolff) discovers a notebook created by a Death God named Ryuk (Willem Dafoe). If the kid writes a name in the book, that person will die (typically through some sort of elaborate series of ‘Final Destination’-style lethal bumbles). Light soon teams up with a local cutie named Mia (Margaret Qualley). They fall in love while using the Death Note to kill criminals and warlords under the code name Kira. At first, that makes Kira a vigilante celebrity in the media. However, a candy-loving masked detective named L (Lakeith Stanfield) doesn’t appreciate all those murders and is determined to uncover Kira’s identity. Safe to say that things are only going to get worse for everybody from there.
Without question, the movie feels like it was based on a Japanese comic (not to mention an anime series and a previous Japanese live-action adaptation). The transition across cultures is a bit awkward, especially since director Adam Wingard (‘You’re Next’, ‘The Guest’) gleefully uses the renegade storytelling, flashes of surrealism, and gallons of gore common in manga. It’s a loving tribute, but it’s also easy to see how the nerd fan base would get in a tizzy making white-washing allegations. I’ll just leave that there and talk about the rest of the film on its own terms, because it’s a ton of fun.
From the opening frames, Wingard creates a hyper-stylized world and runs with it. The film is paced like a bullet, racing through story beats and character development desperate to get to the good stuff. That’s both good and bad. No one on screen has much depth, but the whole project has such a blood-soaked goofy momentum that it functions like a carnival ride. The elaborate and disgustingly brutal death scenes pile up early and often, delivered by Wingard (as well as second unit director Jason Eisener of ‘Hobo with a Shotgun’ fame) with a mixture of dark humor and stylized glee. The project was clearly made by a man raised on Fangoria, and those who enjoy that sort of thing will adore the horror bits in ‘Death Note’. Wingard gets those all right, especially the death god Ryuk. He’s visually faithfully to the comic, butt creepily only appears in shadows where his imposing profile can overwhelm and his beady eyes can shine through the darkness. Voice acting fell to Willem Dafoe, a perfect choice with his cackling sounds that are sure to slither up viewers’ spines. Ryuk is handled brilliantly, and if Netflix decides to turn ‘Death Note’ into a franchise, he’ll be a strong cornerstone to build it around.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for most of the other characters. Lakeith Stanfield’s twisted detective is a delight, but the leads Nat Wolff and Margaret Qualley leave a lot to be desired. They look magazine-cover pretty and say the words, but add little personality in performances that often feel like cold line readings. To be fair, the script doesn’t give them much to work with. It’s obvious that this screenplay went through the soul-sucking studio notes process before landing on Netflix. Everything feels overthought to death. That works for the plotting and elaborate set-pieces, but the characters are too cornball and designed to force empathy to register with any depth. The whole movie is a big beautiful death trap with an empty core. It has little humanity, and despite all the themes of justice, honor, vigilante heroism and more that get tossed into the air, few actually register.
Still, most folks won’t watch a hard-R fantasy/horror/action romp hoping for character depth or rich insights into humanity. They’ll want a sensory overload and Wingard certainly delivers that. Working with a decent Hollywood budget for the first time, the director delivers a relentless ride of genre thrills pitched halfway between anime excess, a 1980s genre goof (the pop soundtrack from that era is pretty hysterical), and ’90s genre sheen. It’s such a big beautiful entertainment machine and directorial show-off reel that it’s no shock Wingard landed ‘Godzilla vs. King Kong’ off this movie. ‘Death Note’ proves he can play with the big boys. If you can turn off your brain or divorce yourself from the source material for 100 minutes, there’s plenty of gory fun to be had. Sometimes that’s enough.