“Death Note” Movie Review

Full discretion before we begin: I have never read a page of the manga nor watched an episode of the anime series from which this Netflix feature was adapted. I’m going to review this with completely objective eyes. If there’s something I don’t understand in this post that you would like to correct or shed light on, feel free to comment below. This psychological dark fantasy was produced on a relatively small budget of $40 million. Though Netflix doesn’t release their viewership figures, it did attract a large crowd at the 2017 San Diego Comic-Con before being released on August 25th. According to several sources, at least 10 studios were bidding for the rights to the Death Note franchise as early as 2009. In 2016, after Adam Wingard signed on as the director, there were outrages and accusations of whitewashing in the cast. Basically, it’s suffering the same fate as any Hollywood adaptation of a beloved anime. Nat Wolff stars as Light Turner, a lonely high school student who receives a mysterious notebook out of the sky. When he meets the death god Ryuk, he is told that anyone can die if he simply writes their name and cause of death in the book. He uses the book to start ridding the world of known criminals under the guise of a god “Kira,” and attracts the attention of an enigmatic detective named L. Now as I said, I have no familiarity with the franchise. Only in recent years have I started getting into anime, particularly ones by Hayao Miyazaki. And for those of you asking about my opinion on this year’s Ghost in the Shell… I bought a ticket to see Power Rangers instead. But just hearing the whole concept of Death Note intrigued me, as any anime usually does. And from what I heard, the original creators gave their official stamp of approval for the American version. So I actually was somewhat looking forward to watching this movie on Netflix. Honestly… I feel underwhelmed. Is it as terrible as some people are touting it to be? No, it’s not. But there are a lot of problems. Starting with Nat Wolff as Light Turner, who may just be one of the most uninteresting actors in recent years. He gives an absolutely lifeless and dull performance for this character who can actually be pretty compelling. Willem Dafoe voices Ryuk, and he really sounds like the Green Goblin from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man all over again. Except now, he sounds way more demonized and menacing than before, especially with the character’s sweet design. Though, it sometimes feels like he’s just waiting for his paycheck to clear. Margaret Qualley, who gave a brilliant role in The Nice Guys, is Light’s love interest and accomplice. She isn’t given much to say or do aside from encouraging our hero to give in to his darker instincts. But the best actor here, by far, is Atlanta‘s Lakeith Stanfield as L. Having impressed me with his small part in Get Out, I feel like this could be one of the quirkiest and nerdiest actors around. His mannerisms and style of wardrobe are really relatable and badass, even if he feels underutilized. The visual style is rather unique, easily the most consistent aspect of the entire movie. The film uses bright neon lights to illuminate the characters in stark red and light blue. The way the David Tattersall uses the camera to focus in on characters or a scene feels odd, but it sells the idea that this is an (adaptation of) anime. There have certainly been worse Dutch angles used in cinema. The editing was sometimes awkward, choosing to use multiple cross-fades interjected into a single scene. I don’t really understand why, other than trying to add more and more style to the film. Atticus and Leopold Ross work together on the score and feels eerily similar to Atticus’ work on The Social Network. Mostly 80’s synthesizers, it helps build an atmosphere worthy of a psychological thriller. But there aren’t really any memorable or standout tracks. It also includes several real-life songs, particularly some bits of late 90’s soft rock. A friend of mine, who is familiar with the source material, told me a while back that they always think of anime when late 90’s or early 2000’s soft rock is laying. I couldn’t tell if they were joking or not. Let’s get right to the last act of the movie. It wasn’t very good, to begin with, but the last 15 or so minutes of Death Note kind of just bury it. In case you actually want to watch this movie, I won’t spoil it here at all, but my God. It might as well be the cinematic epitome of the word “convenience.” Because right when the end happens, it reveals an extensive contingency plan that our protagonist came up with on the fly on a public desktop. Also, a quick rant: Why would you have Ryuk built up as a third-act villain if the Rules he establishes can be easily broken, leaving to just loom large a lot of the scenes? I take one of two interpretations out of this: Either Ryuk is a useless character altogether or they’re setting him up for a potential sequel. I really doubt that this will be the one that causes Netflix to release a full-length follow-up to one of their originals. While its visual style is compelling enough, Death Note wastes a promising plot on bad actors and confused writing. If you want to watch it, go ahead. If you want to watch a good thriller, watch Adam Wingard’s other film The Guest instead. In all honesty, L is the saving grace of this picture. And this is coming from someone who, again, has never been affiliated with the source material. I can only imagine what real fans must have thought of.

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