Even attempting to adapt the the epic universe of Death Note, created by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, would surely doom you in having your name scrawled in the eponymous book. So huge is the mythos of Death Note now (spawning sprawling Manga sagas, anime, tv and even a stage musical) even when the Netflix behemoth picked up the leather-bound concept, it must have been the a freighting prospect. There may be a guaranteed global fan-base, but so devoted to the source material anyone foolish enough to look the adaptation demon in the eye and blink would surely conjure their own Kira. However, the near life-threatening pressure of adapting Death Note for a western audience is clearly a prospect The Blair Witch's director, Adam Wingard, felt brave enough to face. While the Netflix' rendition of Death Note does all it can to capture the elements that make its progenitor such a phenomenon, it never manages to rise above a myth ripe for teen angst.
For the uninitiated, Death Note is a supernatural book that comes with a remarkable two-fer of a Shinigami (god of death), which allows the user to control shortly before deciding the demise of anyone who's name they inscribe on the pages. It's a wonderful conceit just begging for exploration. However, any prospect of navigating morality or justifying murder are immediately torn from its leather-bound spine when it's clear early on that we'll be taking a whistle stop tour of the original's ideas.
To be fair, Wingard and his three writers do everything they can to make up for the fact that they just don't have a scroll long enough for the denser subtexts. The opening introduces an off-kilter mood reminiscent of Donnie Darko, but soon scrambles it with unsuccessful jabs of humour. The animosity between Light (Nat Wolff) and Mia (Margaret Qualley) is tantalisingly established early on and then railroaded with a lightening speed development of their relationship. The most intriguing character, L, is as elusive as he charismatic - played wonderfully by Lakeith Stanfield, as if The Shadow grew up in an orphanage and replaced his guns with a computer - but has all his mystery uncloaked the moment we need the story to move on. Even the stylistic draw of Ryuk is introduced in an inventively obscure shadow, only to needlessly lift the skirt of mystery. Where at first he lurked creepily, he parades. come the second act. Unfortunately, the commitment to condense the story eventually dissolves any of the stronger elements that kept you turning the pages.
The undoing of the latest rendition of Death Note isn't that it fails to embrace the original's ideas or ignores too much of them. Like the rules of the book itself, it struggles when it tries to interpret them to suit its own ends and a paired-down running time.
2* - Semi-Final Destination