Review: ‘Death Note’ (2017)

American adaptations of manga and anime are a tricky thing. In addition to the instant (and often warranted) accusations of whitewashing, filmmakers have an uphill battle. If you change too much and fans criticize your decision to adapt the material for American audiences in the first place. If you don’t change enough, you’ll find yourself staring down the barrel of cultural appropriation allegations. There’s also the simple fact that many of these are considered niche properties in the States. If you can’t get audiences to pay attention, they’re not going to show up for it…even if you cast Scarlett Johansson (nice try, Ghost in the Shell).

In light of all of these issues, I wasn’t too surprised when New Line Cinema dumped this project. While Death Note has a fairly simple and enticing hook, most similar manga-related fare has either struggled at the box office (Speed Racer, Ghost in the Shell) or only managed to scrape by on international grosses (Edge of Tomorrow). That’s not too inspiring for a big studio, but Netflix is no big studio. They’re ready and willing to accept all manner of projects. Death Note being one of them.

The streaming juggernaut scooped this production up from New Line, inheriting the film’s creative team in the process. Good on them, as I enjoyed the hell out of this supernaturally-tinged tale of relationships, destiny, and murder that revolves around an accursed book and a kill-crazy demon. The script, punched up by Jeremy Slater (TV’s The Exorcist), is sharp and biting. The cast is young, capable, and energetic. Well, Shea Whigham isn’t young, but that man never fails to slay every scene he’s in, so it matters not. The score and synthwave song choices are on point. Adam Wingard’s direction is career best, despite not being my favorite film of his (The Guest has that honor). It’s a winner across the board.

I hadn’t been too impressed with Netflix’s original feature output (pick-ups notwithstanding) in the past, but they’ve really upped their game in 2017. Their genre output in particular has greatly improved, with this being one of the best of the bunch. This is the kind of movie that would have played nationwide in the ’90s and, at the very least, developed a cult following as a memorable mid-budget genre effort. These days such productions are few and far between on the studio level, so it’s nice to see an outfit like Netflix stepping in to fill that void. If you’re a fan of films like The Crow, Donnie Darko, and Disturbing Behavior, then this flick is for you.

Death Note is an adaptation of the supernatural thriller manga by Tsugami Ohba and Takeshi Obata. It is directed by Adam Wingard, from a screenplay by Charles Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides, and Jeremy Slater. The film is produced by Roy Lee, Dan Lin, Masi Oka, Jason Hoffs, and Ted Sarandos. It stars Nat Wolff, Margaret Qualley, Lakeith Stanfield, Shea Whigham, Paul Nakauchi, and the vocal talents of Willem Dafoe.

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