How do you make a movie that feels simultaneously boring and way too short? Ask Adam Wingard, I guess. Wingard’s name was what drew me to the Americanized Netflix original movie version of Death Note in the first place, having never read the manga or watched the anime or any of the various Japanese live action versions. Wingard had previously impressed with his 2011 film You’re Next and then even moreso with 2014’s The Guest, and while I wasn’t a big fan of his take on Blair Witch, I was willing to cut him enough slack to be curious about Death Note.
Honestly, in spite of my snarky opening up there, I’m really not sure how much of Death Note‘s failures lie at Wingard’s feet. This is a movie that feels, at every step, like it needs to have been a series, which, obviously, it already was, more than once. As a result, the film has the weird feeling of shortening or skipping over all the most interesting bits and short-changing most of the character building, giving it a sense of being at once thin and overstuffed.
Like a number of other recent movies, Death Note has been at the heart of a whitewashing controversy for importing the original characters from Japan to Seattle and making them American. I don’t feel like I’m the right person to ask about the whitewashing aspect of the film, but I do feel like Death Note made a fatal mistake by being an adaptation of the source material at all. The core concept of the series (as I understand it) seems like one that could be re-purposed into dozens of stories, so if you’re going to make an American version, do it as a sequel or spin-off of the original, rather than a retelling. Something that fits less awkwardly into an hour-and-forty-minute frame. (Not only would this have spared the film at least some of its whitewashing problems, it would also eliminate the need to buy that Shea Whigham’s character actually named his son “Light,” even with the flimsy “explanation” that his mom “was always kind of a hippie.”)
Of course, if the movie had a different story, it might also lose its greatest strength, which is Lakeith Stanfield as “L.” Having never read the manga or watched the anime, I don’t know what the character of “L” was like before, but Stanfield’s performance makes him far and away the best thing in the film, absolutely stealing the movie out from under everyone else. (I’d say something like “Lakeith Stanfield as Batman,” but, let’s be honest, his jittery, candy-guzzling “L” is already kinda better than Batman, isn’t he?)
The good news is, the Adam Wingard of You’re Next and The Guest seems to be at least somewhat back in Death Note, with its shots of “L” prowling through the halls of a nightclub or perching in every chair that he occupies. The visuals of Death Note stay fairly interesting even when the story flounders, though some shots, like an early image of spilled marbles rolling across the floor, needed to hold a little longer to really kick. (There’s a review of Death Note over at Birth. Movies. Death. that says most of what I would say about the film, while also being maybe a little more generous than I would be.)
Ultimately, I can’t speak to how Death Note holds up if you’re a fan of the anime/manga/whatever, though most fans I know have so far been disappointed. I can say that probably the highest praise I can muster for this Netflix original (besides that it really needs to cement Lakeith Stanfield as a star), is that it made me want to track down the other versions. So I guess that’s something.