Monday, 11 December 2017

Movie Review: Death Note (2017)



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The plot: Light Turner (Nat Wolff) is just your average high school student. That is, until he discovers a notebook called the Death Note, a tool of the death gods where if a person’s name is written within, that person will die. Wanting to use this power for good, he is spurned on by the death god Ryuk (Willem Dafoe) to rid the world of crime using the Death Note, becoming known as Kira. However, as Light’s father (Shea Whigham) is called on to investigate the series of mysterious deaths, and a mysterious detective (Lakeith Stanfield) is brought in to assist, Light’s mission is about to get a whole lot tougher.




Nat Wolff is about as miscast as you can get for our main character. Not only is the guy far too shrill to engage under the right circumstances, he also isn’t able to make the character’s sporadic bouts of genius feel like they fit his persona. By contrast, Willem Dafoe as the manipulative god of death is perfect casting, and the way he lets the sheer menace of his character drip through every syllable he utters makes for a very fun performance. Margaret Qualley as Light’s love interest Mia not only seems to be the most in-touch with the tone of the original work, her attitudes and actions within the narrative make her out to be the character we should be focusing on as opposed to Light. Considering she’s sharing the name of one of the manga’s most annoying characters, that is quite a feat. Shea Whigham as Light’s father works out okay, if a bit bland, Paul Nakauchi was a damn good pick to play Watari, although maybe not the version we get here, and Stanfield as the master detective L gets a lot of the character’s best-remembered mannerisms down, but he is unable to keep that momentum going for the entire film. By the time we reach the final reel, he ends up joining everyone else in how needlessly in-flux his character is.

If you’re looking for a faithful adaptation of the original manga in any form, then you’ll likely be a bit disappointed by what we get. While the skeleton of the story is still the same, with a high school student finding the means to rid the world of perceived evil, a lot of the specifics have been shifted around. Light has gone from being a cunning puppet master who goes through ridiculously elaborate means to keep himself hidden into a try-hard emo kid who ends up getting played with more than he ever ends up playing others. L has shades of the genius detective he’s most recognized as, but he is now also far more skittish and no longer the calmest and most confident person in the room. Mia carries no trace of her manga counterpart Misa, forgoing idealistic and unrequited love for a perspective that shows the most understanding of both the Death Note itself and what it is capable of in “the right hands”. And Light’s father, who once had a pragmatic insistence that some people shouldn’t have this kind of power at their disposal, is now so compromised that it’s genuinely surprising that he even manages to survive for as long as he does.

However, none of that is ultimately the issue. After all, pretty much every single adaptation involves changing around the details in order to either fit a completely different medium or to fit a creative’s differing take on the material. Where the problem comes in is with how much of the story isn’t changed. We still have Light being egged on by Ryuk to become a vigilante and take care of the world’s criminals. We still have L being brought in to help track him down. We still have the myriad of rules associated with the Death Note, with only one or two left out for plot convenient reasons. If this was a pure attempt to tell a fresh story based on an old framework, I would be fine with it, even as a die-hard fan of the original material. Instead, this film feels like it’s torn between staying true to the source and verging off in its own direction. We don’t get the same insanely intricate battle of wits between Light and L, one of the best parts of the original story, but instead the trials and tribulations of a high school kid. Not a mastermind that could change the world to fit his image, but just a kid with a lot of supernatural power behind him. To say that this is a far less interesting take would be underselling the fact that, somewhere in here, there is a far better idea.

Here’s where things get tricky: As the film stretches on, you start to wonder why it holds onto as much as it does. With just a few re-writes, and a slight bit of discomfort at not including Ryuk in the picture, this very easily could have been its own story. Not a direct adaptation but more of a spin-off taking place in the same narrative universe. And with the changes made, that actually could have worked. Rather than focusing on elaborate mind games, the film seems far more interested in the inherent moral gymnastics of the concept; how does the ability to kill with this much freedom affect the human mind? Especially the mind of a teenager, where elements like peer pressure and bullying can factor into how the Death Note is used. It may not be the story that we all know and love, but it would at least show a willingness to play around with the idea. Unfortunately, that attempt is held back by how it still wants to be a story about Kira bending the world to its twisted sense of justice, something that seems at odds with who Kira ultimately is according to this film. As a result, the parts unique to this film and the parts inherited from the source material end up clashing in rather disheartening ways, resulting in an experience where neither the filmmakers nor the audience really know what the ultimate point of all this is.

All in all, this is an absolute mess of an adaptation. The acting ranges from head-tilted to perfectly on-target, the direction shows Adam Wingard has a definite idea on how to leave his own stamp on the story, the music choices seem to get progressively worse as the film goes on, but it’s the writing that is the biggest problem. The script by Charles and Vlas Parlapanides, with a revision by Jeremy Slater, can’t seem to make its mind up on whether it wants to be a faithful adaptation of the original manga or a brand-new story set in the same world. Because of that conflict, the film comes out incredibly uneven and far harder to gel with than it really should be. Even as someone who is more than willing to defend Wingard’s last feature Blair Witch, I can’t deny that this just plain doesn’t work.

It ranks lower than The Bye Bye Man, which may have been far more derivative but I’m not exactly bummed out by how much it didn’t work. This film, because of how much potential is evident in its construction and possible intent, honestly hurts more in the comparison. However, as much of a letdown as this is, what it has going for it could still be salvaged under the right circumstances and made into something better. Anything that CHiPs has going for it is not only not worth the effort to save, but it’s attached to a production that has far more lingering issues than simple adaptation sickness.

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