Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 41 minutes
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Directed by: Adam Wingard
Written by: Charles Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides & Jeremy Slater
(based on the DEATH NOTE manga by Tsugumi Ohba & Takeshi Obata)
Starring: Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield, Margaret Qualley, Shea Whigham, Paul Nakauchi & Willem Dafoe
An American DEATH NOTE film has been in the works since 2009, with directors like Shane Black and Gus Van Sant rumored to be attached and even a brief space of time where it appeared that Zac Efron would be playing the lead role. The studio also screwed with the formula from the very beginning, actively trying to remove the Shinigami (death gods) from the plot altogether. Adam Wingard has a reputation as a solid genre director and Netflix has been making ballsy risks with its steady supply of original content, so I was actually looking forward to DEATH NOTE. Sadly, diehard anime/manga fans, those who have only seen the Japanese films (I fall into this category), and newcomers will all likely be disappointed by this mess of a movie.
Light Turner (Nat Wolff) is an angsty teen coping with his mother’s untimely death and a frequent target of bullies at his Seattle high school. One day, Light finds a nasty little notebook and discovers that the pages within grant him the god-like ability to kill simply by writing down a name. This “Death Note” was dropped by bored death god Ryuk (a performance-capture/vocal performance by Willem Dafoe) and Light is all too happy to begin using it. Good intentions of killing only criminals soon give way towards personal, vengeance-driven motives as Light falls for psycho-bitch Mia Sutton (Margaret Qualley). Matters only get worse when Light finds himself being hunted by mastermind detective L (Lakeith Stanfield) and the body count continues to rise…all while his high school prom is on the horizon. What’s an angsty whiny teen with god-like killing abilities to do?
2017’s DEATH NOTE isn’t all bad. There are aspects that I really enjoyed about this film, but they don’t fully counteract the many problems that I cannot overlook. The best quality comes in Willem Dafoe’s Ryuk. Many will know Dafoe for playing the Green Goblin in Sam Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN and gracing other oddball roles. Ryuk is no different. Dafoe steals the show as a chaos-loving, shit-stirring death god. I was entertained during every minute that Dafoe was on the screen. The problem is that Dafoe’s death god is noticeably absent from a majority of the running time, when he has a big role to play in the proceedings.
Another quality that I really enjoyed is that the gory deaths aren’t simple heart attacks like the manga, anime and original films. Instead, Light’s killings are reminiscent of FINAL DESTINATION. Though I’ve seen some fans complain about this online, I really enjoyed how this DEATH NOTE shook up its demises. It’s also worth mentioning that the final 30 minutes of the film have a few nifty plot twists that reminded me of better moments from the first two live-action Japanese films. 2017’s DEATH NOTE isn’t nearly on the same level as DEATH NOTE or DEATH NOTE II: THE LAST NAME, but this film has a couple of unexpected revelations that were clever and deserved to be in a better script.
This is where my praise ends, because everything else ranges from mediocre to stupid to downright baffling. That third descriptor is especially apt in saying this film’s 80s soundtrack simply doesn’t fit the proceedings and tonally distracts from what’s happening on the screen. There’s a big dramatic scene that’s supposed to be emotional and shocking, but comes off as laughably silly thanks to an idiotic song choice. The film isn’t set in the 80s either, so what’s with all of the 80s songs? Earlier this year, ATOMIC BLONDE rocked an 80s soundtrack because it was set during the 80s and BABY DRIVER had an assortment of tunes constantly playing on the main character’s iPod. Both of those soundtracks made sense of the context of their films, but DEATH NOTE’s soundtrack is weirdly placed for no apparent reason.
Besides the out-of-place songs, DEATH NOTE’s script is bland and muddled. This film was penned by two brothers (who’ve only written one other film, 2011’s IMMORTALS) and Jeremy Slater (the guy who wrote the worst superhero flick I’ve ever seen: FANTASTIC FOUR). It’s safe to say that DEATH NOTE’s writing is its biggest weakness. Somehow, this less-than-two-hour film packs tons of information into its opening 15 minutes and yet drags for a majority of its running time. The bigger plot points include a school prom and a forced teen romance with no believable chemistry, instead of a downward spiral of the Death Note corrupting Light or a tense cat-and-mouse game between two geniuses.
Speaking of which, 2017’s DEATH NOTE has terrible characters. Nat Wolff is unbearable as Light, coming off like a whiny little edgelord who’s oh so upset because life isn’t fair. Having a deadly notebook in the hands of a hormonally unstable teen could make for a very interesting take on the material, but Light’s annoying personality and frequent dumb decisions (like using the Death Note in the middle of gym class where everybody can see him) constantly get in the way of a potentially cool spin on the material.
Still, Nat Wolff’s obnoxious portrayal of Light is nowhere near as misguided as Margaret Qualley’s Mia (this film’s version of Misa) who’s a sociopathic psycho-bitch cheerleader who impulsively kills and seeks to manipulate Light at every turn. It’s almost like this version of DEATH NOTE did a 180 degree spin on the personalities of sociopathic Light and naïve Misa, but in a way that’s not at all enjoyable for franchise fans and newcomers alike. There’s no chemistry between Mia and Light, but the film forces their angsty teenage romance to the forefront. Also, Lakeith Stanfield is embarrassingly bad as mysterious detective L, who gets teary-eyed every single time one of his half-baked schemes backfires and eats candy to stay awake for 48 hours at a time (because that’s how sugar works, I guess?).
Adam Wingard has directed good films in the past and that’s one of the many reasons why DEATH NOTE is so damn disappointing. There are positive qualities that I really liked about this film, mainly Dafoe’s Ryuk, the FINAL DESTINATION-like deaths, and plot twists that felt like they belonged in a better film. However, the sheer amount of bad acting, dumb character decisions, plot holes, poor pacing, and misguided 80s songs really put a damper on the whole movie. DEATH NOTE isn’t the disaster that some have made it out to be, but it’s still pretty bad.