Death Note has some minor positives — the rendering of the demon Ryuk is terrifying and visually perfect. Since this is a demon based in Japanese culture, he should’ve been voiced by a Japanese actor, but Willem Dafoe is, admittedly, wickedly and deliciously good. Lakeith Stanfield, Shea Whigham and Margaret Qualley are also all fairly serviceable in their roles.
But everything else about Netflix’s most recent original release is shockingly bad. No matter how well the supporters performed, they couldn’t make up for Nat Wolff. Not only does Wolff struggle to deliver his lines convincingly, and not awkwardly, but his facial expressions border on camp, which might’ve been an interesting choice had it been on purpose.
Wolff’s character, Light Turner, doesn’t receive any help from the writers or director Adam Wingard either. The story fails to sell Light’s motivations and never frames him in any way where audiences can feel any sort of sympathy for his psychological downfall. In fact, it’s difficult not to hate him intensely.
Death Note had a shot to be morally fascinating and, for a second (it was only a second), it seems like it might pull it off. But instead of thoroughly investigating the psyches of characters with the power of death in their hands, the film reverts to a cat and mouse game that also fails to be engaging.
For Death Note to have succeeded in its themes of morality, however, it would’ve had to be moral itself. The handling of Margaret Qualley’s Mia is sexist — the character is merely used as a tool to progress Light’s journey. At one point, the film even goes so far as having Mia say that cheerleading is meaningless. And her fate, nonsensically and grossly explained, is infuriating.
The whitewashing and cultural appropriation are also embarrassingly bad. Death Note sells itself as an American adaptation, but the simple presence of Ryuk invokes Japanese culture and ethics. The film shamefully uses Japan and Japanese people at its convenience, even having the only named Japanese character put under mind control before being murdered. Both aspects disqualify it from being an “American adaptation.” It’s horrifically ignorant and entirely offensive.