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Film in review: ‘Death Note’

Nate Nelson, Features Reporter

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Netflix’s newest feature film “Death Note” isn’t exactly a typical showing from the streaming giant. Based off the anime of the same name about death gods and a magic book, the film takes the same elements of the original and shifts them all over the place. It’s not an adaptation in the common sense: the political intrigue, twists and turns and general mind melding is gone in exchange for heavier horror tropes and a heartier romance. Somehow, “Death Note” is a terrible adaptation, but a decently competent and entertaining horror flick.

Before I get too into the review, I need to address the elephant in the room: the whitewashing. “Death Note” is inherently a Japanese story, with multiple references and specific ideals that are deeply embedded in Japanese culture. Moving it to the United States was bound to cause some changes on that side, but they still missed the bar when it came to casting. Casting a white actor in the lead role was a huge missed opportunity. Nat Wolff is by far the worst actor and character in the film, so casting a competent Asian American actor in the lead role might have made the film that much better. “Death Note’s” problem with race isn’t as egregious as, say, this year’s “Ghost in the Shell” adaptation, but it still bears mention.

As for the film itself, I was completely expecting to hate it. Anime and video game adaptations are infamous for being complete failures (I mean, just look at “Dragon Ball: Evolution” and try to say that was worth making.) The problem often arises from the film trying to stick too close, or move too far from the source material. “Death Note” manages to avoid some of those problems

by being a full reimagining of the source, not a straightforward adaptation. It’s not great, not even close. But it is at the very least a decent watch.

The basic premise involves a high schooler named Light Turner (Nat Wolff) who discovers a book called the Death Note. The book is the notebook of a death god, and by writing any name inside it, they can seal that person’s fate. With the newfound abilities, Light chooses to become a modern god named “Kira” to change the world. Hot on his trail is the young investigator L (Lakeith Stanfield), an undefeated genius who has solved some of the world’s biggest cases. The logistical fight between them, and how Light manages to evade him is the backbone of the franchise, and of this film as well.

Director Adam Wingard is on his A-game this time around, with style that just oozes from the screen. There’s a bit of neo-80’s kick to his vision, with a soundtrack that follows suit, but overall the film is genuinely pretty freaky. After directing “You’re Next” and “The Guest,” it was expected for Wingard to come into the blockbuster horror realm, and this was a decent way to do it. While not the best film, it does fit nicely within his complete oeuvre.

The acting is a mixed bag. Wolff is basically unlikable for 80 percent of the film, and his girlfriend Mia (Margaret Qualley) is competent, but still iffy. It’s hard to say if it’s the acting that’s bad or the script itself. On the other hand, Stanfield’s L is a joy. Stanfield has been killing it lately, with featured parts in “Get Out” and the FX series “Atlanta,” and the amount of character he is able to bring to his role here shows that he really is one of the most talented guys working in cinema today. I can’t forget Willem Dafoe as the god of death Ryuk, either. His voice work is awkward, creepy and a bit spine-chilling.

The story is, unsurprisingly, the weakest link. Trying to fit and summarize a sprawling series into a film with a runtime of less than two hours was never going to work, and while Wingard did make some decent changes to make it run a little cleaner, it still feels rushed and bloated. The relocalization isn’t perfect, and there is quite a bit that was lost in translation, but for a campy teen horror flick, it isn’t the worst thing I’ve seen.

“Death Note” has its own fair share of problems. With a bloated story, some iffy dialogue and a general sense of lost identity, the film pales in comparison to its inspiration. That said, I still found it enjoyable. The visuals are eye-popping, a few of the actors pull off the impossible and the violence is sufficiently visceral. If you’re expecting a one-to-one adaptation, look elsewhere, but for a Thursday night horror flick, you could do a lot worse. 3/5

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Film in review: ‘Death Note’