by Patrick Bromley
As someone with zero familiarity with the original Death Note manga series or any of its many adaptations, I enter Adam Wingard's new Americanized take as a total noob. I know that the internet was gunning for the film months before it was ever released, accusing it of whitewashing a story that is fundamentally Eastern, and then spent the weekend trashing it online. I can't comment on its merits as an adaptation, but rather can only consider how it works when taken as its own story. On that level, it is entertainly nasty and quite well-directed, but more than a little messy. Even without knowing that this is a much larger story that's been condensed down to 100 minutes, the movie feels like it needs to be a much larger story but has been condensed down to 100 minutes.
That's a lot of story, right? Probably enough for three movies. Death Note crams it all into a single film, rushing through beats that could use more time to breathe in the span of a few moments. The leap from Light and Mia messing around with the Death Note to them becoming gods is rushed, then plays out in a single montage. It's a fascinating idea that plays into the revenge fantasies of disenfranchised young people looking to exert some control over a world in which they otherwise feel powerless. I wish that the screenplay for Death Note, by Charles Parlapanide, Vlas Parlapanides, and Jeremy Slater, had developed some of these themes better, as it would help Death Note feel like it's about something more than porting over a bunch of story beats. Even the moral questions of good and evil -- is it acceptable to use the power of the Death Note to rid the world of people who are dangerous monsters?-- are paid mostly lip service in a debate that appears to be happening around the fringes of the film.
My favorite part of the movie (besides the over the top bloodshed) is the execution of Ryuk, who exists as part devil on the shoulder and part imaginary friend. I love his design, I love Dafoe's characterization, and I love Wingard's decision to go practical with the execution (it's an actor in a suit, with CG enhancements for the facial expressions). Like most of the characters in Death Note, however, Ryuk is disappointingly static. I don't require major emotional growth for a demon that functions primarily as a catalyst for the rest of the story, but Ryuk has no real surprises in store. That might be ok if the other characters did, but many of them behave in ways that are incomprehensible, too -- none more so than Mia, a character who makes drastic choices based on the needs of the screenplay without ever revealing who she actually is. Lakeith Stanfield comes out ok as L, even if his character is little more than a collection of quirks and eccentricities, while Shea Wigham fares best in a supporting role as Light's cop father. He's a man with a code as both a police officer and as a father. If every character was as clearly drawn as Wigham's is, Death Note might have overcome some of its story problems and amounted to more than "fun."