Movie Review: “Death Note” – Illegible

Written by Matt Butler August 30, 2017

death note

Watching Netflix’s Death Note is like reading your goth friend’s sad emo poetry. They’ll spit out occasional bursts of creativity, but it’s obvious they don’t have a clue what the hell they’re talking about. Though to be fair, maybe I don’t either. I haven’t seen the Death Note anime since high school anime club, and that was just the first episode. That’s all a timid young me needed to be forever disturbed by little black notebooks. Did you know they sell Death Notes at Neo Tokyo? I didn’t know if that was hilarious or horrifying. Years have passed, and my humour has darkened. So this idea of an instant-acting death wish is way more intriguing to me.

Death Note has a premise full of possibilities. It prompts critical questions of power, responsibility, justice, morality and several other topics that a 37 episode TV series can answer with way more insight than a 90-minute movie. That’s right, right down to the run-time, this movie offers the bare minimum.

“Shall we begin?”

But at the very minimum, the movie looks competently assembled. The cinematography is creative, the editing moves the story along at a brisk pace lending the movie to an edgy style. Compared to Ghost in the Shell (2017), a movie with many of the same problems, Death Note at least has Adam Wingard, a horror director who can add a fitting flair to the piece. The cast is also perfectly serviceable, with Willem Dafoe as the obvious choice for Ryuk, even if he’s spending the entire movie re-enacting the mirror scene from Spider-Man. His casting makes perfect sense.

death note

The character of Light Turner (Nat Wolff), however, is a different story. There’s something very wrong with Light. Not just his ethnicity, or his stupid hair, or his stupid name. His character is wrong too. He is way too accepting of the Death Note. Sure, he hesitates the first time around and screams when his high school bully’s head’s torn off by a sliding ladder. But he never shows any guilt or remorse for his actions.

“Every human spends the last moments of his life in the shadow of a death god.”

Not that he has to be an upright kid who always does the right thing. But when your lead protagonist has to kill someone, you might want to start with someone more justifiable. Not just some over-the-top high school bully. A random murderer or sex offender would slide. In fact, his mom’s murderer is set free. That would have been perfect for his first kill! And yet for some reason, that’s only his second. 10 minutes into Death Note, and Light is already hinging on becoming a psychopath.

death note

I think this is a serious missed opportunity. It keeps us from seeing Light’s morality shift from good to bad, which is way more interesting than bad turning to worse. Later, the movie tries to retrospectively redeem his moral compass when he refuses to kill innocent people. Where was that earlier?

“It’s like you said, sometimes you gotta choose the lesser of the two evils.”

But the real problem with Death Note is the script. It’s too short and meandering to answer any of the many questions a Death Note poses. Instead, it becomes a Catch Me If You Can  pursuit between Light and L (Keith Stanfield), a private investigator. It feels like a script that’s making itself up as it goes along, exploiting the rules of the Death Note for easy resolutions. The movie gets so caught up in writing itself out of a hole that we don’t get enough time to feel any emotional consequences.

Screen Shot 2017-08-29 at 5.01.16 PM

By some paradox, Netflix’ Death Note is both overstuffed and incomplete. It’s obvious that director Adam Wingard has a penchant for horror, and the cast does their best with what they’re given. But the wayward script does few favors for the film’s compelling premise. Probably best to stick with the anime, available in its entirety on Netflix. I’m told the manga’s even better.

My Rating: 4/10

death note

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About Matt Butler

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is a strapping young English Major with a fiery passion for the art of cinematic storytelling. He likes long walks on the beach and knows the proper use of 'your' and 'you're'. (Example: I hope YOU'RE having a wonderful time browsing our site, and I hope you enjoy YOUR time reading my film reviews. I wrote them just for you.)

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