Review: Death Note (2017)

The Netflix Death Note film isn’t very good. By now, most anyone who cares knows this, but I figured I’d offer my two cents. I realize I’ve been throwing around the phrase “dumpster fire” a lot recently. It’s going to start losing meaning soon, but I have to say, Death Note is a dumpster fire. It’s kinda pretty to look at, and if you can ignore the stench, you might even enjoy it for a while. But ultimately, you can’t escape the fact that it’s burning garbage.

In my younger years, I was a little skeptical of the Death Note anime. I had friends who liked it, but the concept and style of the death gods felt a little Hot Topic to me (and I had stopped shopping at Hot Topic like a year earlier). When I watched it, boy was there egg on my face. The anime is endlessly interesting with great characters and a fascinating examination of what justice actually is.

Death Note (2017) is pretty much what I feared the anime would be ten years ago. It often feels edgy for the sake of edge (there’s something unnatural about the way it employs the f-word), the characters are thinly drawn, it only flirts with examining deeper themes and ideas, and there are moments where it feels downright Twilight-y. In the film’s defense, however, it is also extremely goofy and at times very self-aware (I mean those soundtrack choices!). It could have worked as a satirical take on teen, supernatural romances. Like injecting some Natural Born Killers into the works of Stephenie Meyer. I think that’s something that even fits into the wheelhouse of director Adam Wingard. That’s not what the original Death Note is, but adaptions can be different. Unfortunately, the movie leans a little too hard on the anime even as it diverges from it. It’s not a satire; it’s just a mess.

The bare bones plot is the same as the anime. Boy gets supernatural murder book and decides to become a god by killing evildoers. Enigmatic detective tries to solve the case and stop the boy. Boy gets a girlfriend because he has supernatural murder book, and they are known chick magnets. Ah, that classic tale.

The easiest issue to point out is the characters. They are pretty poorly developed, and the only enjoyable performance comes from Willem Dafoe as the original owner of the Death Note, a shinigami (Japanese god of death). Alas, he mostly remains at the fringes of the film, and we’re left with the boy, Light (Nat Wolff); his girlfriend, Mia (Margaret Qualley) and the detective, L (Lakeith Stanfield). Whitewashing aside (that’s an issue to be tackled elsewhere), these probably weren’t the best casting choices. Everyone is just blah.  It’s probably not entirely the actors’ faults. They weren’t given a lot to work with. L especially seems to be just a list of quirks and little else. For a brilliant detective, there is surprisingly little brilliance or detective work. But boy does he ever squat in chairs and eat candy!

Mia, however, is the easiest to use to point out this movie’s issue with characters. She’s completely different in the anime, and that’s not an inherently bad thing. The bad thing is the film gives her zero motivation. She is constantly pushing Light to do more with the Death Note and establish his power as Kira, a godlike persona he adopts. She even suggests they kill Light’s police officer father when he speaks out against Kira. But why is Mia so power hungry and blood thirsty? The closest thing the movie offers us to character development is the fact that she is a cheerleader and nothing she’s done before has meant anything. Are we shown this over the course of the film? No, it’s literally told to us in a single line. Oh, and they show her watching a violent movie. Yeah, that explains the move from normal high schooler to killing a team of FBI agents.

Ultimately, it seems Mia exists solely to be a counterpoint to Light. We don’t see him as evil because Mia is always willing to do something worse. And while I don’t want to compare this too much to the anime, this makes Light and the plot a lot less interesting. Light’s morality was pretty unquestionably deplorable in the anime, but he got results. He was manipulative, arrogant and power hungry (not to mention willing to kill basically anyone), but there was a chance he was making the world a better place. The anime asked difficult questions by making its protagonist both repugnant and fascinating.

For most of the film, Light is a relatively good guy. He won’t kill the FBI agents or his father, wants to save Watari and has to be goaded into using the Death Note in the first place. The end seems to hint that he may be a genius capable of manipulating events and people for his own purposes but barely and kinda idiotically at that. As long as Mia or Dafoe’s death god is around, there’s always someone worse than Light. I don’t know if the filmmakers did this because they were worried audiences wouldn’t connect to a film where the main character is unlikable. But he’s still not likable! He’s kinda a punk-ass bitch that seems to kill people to get laid. Trying to give him a clear moral high ground hurts the character.

Hell, this goes against what the movie seems to want to be about. Despite clearly lacking the ambiguity of the anime, the movie still aims for it. Light when busted for selling papers argues that the principal should be worried about worse offenders. Light’s dad has his spiel about a gun being only as good as its aim, and he also comments that one of the criminals’ deaths is karma. The most obvious moment comes at the end when Light’s dad reveals he knows his son is Kira, and Light explains his big master plan. He ends by telling his father it was all about choosing the lesser of two evils, to which his father responds, “Which one are you, son?” It feels like it’s supposed to be a big, mic drop moment, and the audience is supposed to reflect upon that question, debate whether the ends justified the means and all that jazz. But this is not a big, thought-provoking question. There’s never any doubt that Light is a lesser evil.

The Death Note movie isn’t all bad news. I enjoyed the Final Destination style deaths and over the top gore. It was clearly meant to be fun. When the movie goes for weird and silly, it comes closest to working. I mean scoring the finale with Air Supply was both the worst and greatest thing to ever happen. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to save the movie.

Cake Rating: Film Theory just did a video about how many people were probably killed by Kira in the anime. Their conservative estimate was 242,112. So let’s go with however much sheet cake it takes to feed 242,112 people.

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