REVIEW: Death Note (2017)

Release Poster – Netflix

The following is a review of Netflix’s Death Note – Directed by Adam Wingard.

Adam Wingard’s Death Note follows Light Turner (played by Nat Wolff), a Seattle High School student dressed all in black that does other people’s homework for money, who one day finds a book that literally fell from the skies. The book is a ‘death note,’ and it gives him the power to control a death god named Ryuk (voiced by Willem Dafoe).

Light can kill anyone he desires by writing their name in the book, and when he introduces this concept to the girl he has a crush on – Mia Sutton (played by Margaret Qualley), a cheerleader – they team up and soon fall for each other as their lust for control and power runs amok when they try to take out every criminal out there. As a result, L (played by Lakeith Stanfield), a mysterious international detective, is on the case to track down the person responsible for all of the killing.

Death Note was one of the films that I was the most excited to see this year. It isn’t that I’m a fan of the Death Note anime or manga, therefore you won’t see me compare this to any other version of the story in this review. No, the reason why is that I’m a fan of Adam Wingard, the premise, and Netflix Original Films.

Wingard’s involvement was important to me. I am genuinely a big fan of Adam Wingard. Wingard has made films like the slasher film You’re Next, the underrated action film The Guest, and the surprising sequel to The Blair Witch Project – 2016’s Blair Witch – which I enjoyed more than most. I like all of those films. Unfortunately, Death Note is a massive disappointment.

Again, I can’t comment on it as an adaptation. I’ll add to that by saying that while whitewashing may absolutely be an issue with this film, there are plenty other people willing and able to speak to that issue. I won’t come at this film from those perspectives. This is a movie. It’s just a movie. But it is a bad movie, in my opinion.

I liked the look of the movie, I think some of the death scenes are staged well (especially the one including multiple characters, which I think appeared in one of the trailers), I appreciated some, but not all, of the things Lakeith Stanfield and Margaret Qualley did in the film, and I absolutely loved Willem Dafoe as Ryuk.

Now, here’s the thing, though. You barely see Ryuk, which isn’t a bad idea, but when you do see him the computer-generated images just don’t look great. But when you add Willem Dafoe’s excellent voice performance, which admittedly basically sounds like the Green Goblin but just looks like a death god, it does work.

But that is where my positives end, for me. And my issues begin with the pacing. Although I can’t possibly speak to what happens in the manga or anime, I will say that I was surprised by how fast they rush through the introduction. It comes across as sloppy, to be honest.

The Death Note literally falls from the sky three minutes into the film, about three minutes later Ryuk shows up and spooks Light, and, before you know it, Light has already killed for the first time — a bully named Kenny. And before you can say “Oh my God, he killed Kenny,” Light is planning his next kill. Not long thereafter Light and his new girlfriend have created the persona ‘Kira.’ It all goes by so fast, and it feels so truncated.

I actually need to briefly return to that Ryuk-introduction. Look, Ryuk is scary, and, believe me, if I saw him out of nowhere I’d absolutely be screaming, which Light, of course, does. But that scene is just really poorly done. You’re never quite sure if it’s supposed to be humorous, but it certainly is. And one of the reason for that is that Nat Wolff overdoes it.

Now, Nat Wolff may be a great actor in the making, but he is the farthest thing from that in this film. Nothing he does is believable. At one point in the latter half of the film, we’re supposed to believe he actually planned out everything, when he had shown no such ability to do that up until that point in the film.

I also didn’t buy that Light and Mia actually loved each other, even though I appreciated how they, as a couple, were basically ‘getting high’ on the chaos they could create and the lives they could take. I really wish we could’ve gotten more of Margaret Qualley’s character, Mia, because she is easily the most interesting and realistic main character here.

Which brings me to my next point. I appreciate if they were trying to make this be an American film, but there are just so many oddities here that may work well in a manga or an anime that simply do not work in a more grounded American film.

Light Turner, a name that I could never take seriously, can definitely be an angsty teen dressed all in black. Some teens do that. But everything – and I absolutely mean everything – about Lakeith Stanfield’s L was unbelievable and took me out of the movie.

About thirty minutes into the film, L’s assistant sings him a song. At one point, someone hands a police officer an ice cream cone with greenish ice cream in it. L, himself, was just too much for me, even though Stanfield is decent in the film. We are supposed to believe that L is a world class detective dressed all in black close-fitting clothes, who covers his face as if he were a shy Sith Lord, or some kind of assassin from Assassin’s Creed.

On top of that there are leaps in logic I just wasn’t willing to take, as well as music choices that just didn’t make sense to me (a cover version of “The Power of Love,” plays during the very end of the film and over the closing credits). It’s not the movie I wanted it to be, or the movie I thought it would be.

Netflix and Adam Wingard have supposedly expressed interest in possibly making a sequel to the film. I’d definitely be interested in watching a sequel from Wingard (even though I’d much rather watch a full Netflix series), but, if I’m being honest, it doesn’t deserve one based on the quality of the first film. Death Note is a poorly executed movie that I just cannot recommend.

4.5 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex

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