Death Note Review

Posted September 8, 2017 by Panda Emily Jarrell in Movies

Some adaptations are considered bad not because they are actually bad in and of themselves, but because they do a poor job of interpreting their source material. Other adaptations are considered bad because although they adhered pretty closely to their source material, it just didn’t make for a good film. Netflix’s Death Note does not fall into either of those categories.

Death Note, the manga/anime created by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, is the story of high school student Light Yagami and his discovery of a notebook that allows him to kill anyone whose name he writes in it. That sentence right there is also apparently the depth of understanding the writers of Netflix’s Death Note had of the critically-acclaimed original story.

The story of Light Yagami’s rise to power, and of his intellectual rivalry with the mysterious detective L, is a tense cat-and-mouse game that eventually throws the whole world into chaos. Trying to condense that much story into anything less than a mini-series was already proven impossible in 2006 when Nippon Television produced two mediocre live-action Death Note movies; this attempt by Netflix, which runs a cool one hour and forty-one minutes, is even worse than I could have imagined.

At the heart of all the changes made in this adaptation appears to be a single thread: making Light more sympathetic. Light Turner, played by former The Naked Brothers Band star Nat Wolff, is a misunderstood, bullied loner with poorly bleached blonde hair and the world’s most annoying scream. His characterization as a by-the-numbers misfit stereotype feels less like a version of the Patrick Bateman-esque psychopath Light Yagami, and more like the type of kid who obsessively read the Death Note manga in high school. Light Turner must constantly be pushed to use the power of the Death Note by other characters—first Willem Dafoe’s Ryuk, and later Margaret Qualley’s Mia Sutton—in a way that seems like an attempt to absolve him of any of the moral corruption that should have occurred from its use.

As a result, Mia gets Light Yagami’s more sociopathic character traits: his sense of vigilante justice, his thirst for power, and his manipulative prowess. I have plenty of problems with Misa’s character in the original Death Note, so in theory this change should have been one for the better. Sadly, like everything else in this film, it just didn’t work.

Lakeith Stanfield, bless his heart, seems to have been one of the only people on set that cared at all about the film’s source material. He takes great care to mimic L’s physical quirks and odd behavior, but in the end, it wasn’t enough to redeem the film’s lackluster writing. Indeed, his inclusion in the story at all feels forced; there’s not nearly enough time to set up the battle of wits dynamic between Light and L that was so crucial to the original, and this film’s pacing could have potentially been improved if it had stuck to its focus on the “romantic” relationship between Light and Mia.

Throughout this film are over-the-top, Final Destination-style death sequences and gratuitous uses of the word f**k. This is the kind of thing that a more generous viewer could mistake as an ironic attempt at parodying these aspects commonly found in high school horror films, but all it does is contribute to the film feeling overall like a whiny teenager desperate to seem “edgy” and “cool”. This film should have come out in 2007, at which time it would have just been a transparent cash-grab attempting to ride the popularity of the Death Note anime. Instead, it’s a transparent cash-grab attempting to ride the popularity of the Death Note anime ten years after it was in the mainstream.

Ultimately, despite having some of the surface trappings of a Death Note story, this film simply just does not feel at all like a Death Note film. The source material’s exploration of moral ambiguity and the meaning of justice are nowhere to be found in this bland, try-hard high school drama. Even putting aside the unnecessary whitewashing of the story, which I could have probably written an entire other post about, it’s just a terrible film. Unfortunately, since so many Death Note fans tuned in to hate-watch it, Netflix is likely to greenlight an even more loathsome sequel.

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Panda Emily Jarrell