Adam Wingard’s Death Note is a fairly enjoyable, but awkward adaptation of the hugely popular manga and anime. Wingard definitely takes a few liberties with the source material, but none of it is damning; in fact, I really liked some of the changes. Also: Willem friggin’ Dafoe!
Death Note follows Seattle high school student Light (Nat Wolff), who discovers the titular notebook. With some encouragement from the Death God Ryuk (voiced by Willem Dafoe), Light begins to use the Death Note, which is capable of killing anyone who has their name written in it as long as the writer knows the victim’s name and face. Light reveals his newfound power to his crush Mia (Margaret Qually), and together they kill numerous criminals they see on the news under the alias of “Kira,” hoping to stop all crime worldwide by making all lawbreakers afraid of a seemingly omnipotent vigilante. Their murders eventually catch the attention of L (Lakeith Stanfield), a highly skilled detective with unorthodox methods and a crazy sweet tooth. Aiding L are his butler Watari (Paul Nakauchi) and James Turner (Shea Whigham), Light’s own father.
While the majority of the cast does a decent job, almost everyone has at least one scene where they are brought down heavily by the writing, the outlandishness of the characters themselves (it’s hard to take someone in a live-action movie seriously when he’s crouching on a chair or surrounded by gummy bears), or both. Out of the leads, I thought Qually was the strongest. She was the only one who never seemed cheesy or overly dramatic. It’s also worth noting that Mia is drastically different from her counterpart in the anime, Misa (I can’t say how without spoilers), and I ended up appreciating the movie for it.
The highlight of the cast, and the movie, was Dafoe as Ryuk, who steals every scene he’s in by lacing every line with eerily malicious joy. Fans of the manga and anime have been suggesting Willem Dafoe as Ryuk long before this adaptation was in production, and boy am I glad Wingard listened. I’d almost recommend seeing Death Note just because of Dafoe, but Ryuk has very little screen time, and isn’t given much to do aside from being the devil on Light’s shoulder.
It might not go over well with hardcore fans of the manga or anime, but I think Death Note is one of the better adaptations out there. It’s far from perfect, but I was entertained from start to finish. If the premise interests you, or you’re a super huge fan of Willem Dafoe, it’s worth a watch.