With the release of Death Note, we find that history repeats itself and no one truly learns from the mistakes of the past. I feel that Death Note shows a decline in the quality that Netflix has been able to put forward in recent years that has started to wane. We saw hints of it with “13 Reasons Why”, and this was solidified with “Iron Fist”. Someone over at Netflix is dropping the ball in their production company, and forgetting the quality control that gave us great shows like “House of Cards” or “Stranger Things”. Death Note falls short due to pacing, poor character writing, soundtrack, and erroneous focus on the poorly constructed character of Mia.
Right away, Death Note suffers from a short run time. After selecting it from the Netflix portal, I was shocked to see that they tried to cram the whole story into 1 hour and 40 minutes.
The movie starts out with a montage of Light hanging out near the football field, doing people’s homework while staring at the cheerleaders. He then gets the Death note and is immediately segued into a scene that’s supposed to show that he has a Justice complex, but it’s undermined by a girl (Mia) jumping in and stopping the movie from letting the plot be about Light. Instead of letting Light stand up to these bullies on his own, thus showing that he has the balls to take action, he has to wait for Mia to do anything before he’s allowed to. This is a constant plot device for the movie, Light never does anything unless prompted, which makes him wishy-washy and unlikable. Instead of being in control, he is only reactionary.
We are then quickly transitioned into Light getting in trouble, which I know is supposed to show that he’s being unfairly treated, but it doesn’t carry much weight. I don’t know who this kid is that’s not getting in trouble, I don’t even understand why the Dean/Principal seems out to get Light, but it’s unfair in the most childish way. So he gets detention, which comes off as a contrived way to get him into a room alone so they can have the big reveal of Ryuk.
Which. Is. Awesome.
The marbles, the shadows, the effects of Light having no where to run, even him screaming like a little bitch is comically realistic. Ryuk is the best part of this movie and the fact that they hardly utilized him is criminal.
Everything about this scene focuses on how a real life person would react to the supernatural, which is refreshing. I think it’s a good change that makes sense. I always thought it was strange that in the manga, Light seems more surprised by Ryuk’s sudden appearance than that he’s real. However, I’m not a fan of what they chose to do next.
Ryuk pressures Light into writing the name of the bully from before down in the Death Note. Horrible move for character development and further takes agency away from Light, who, if you can recall at this point, is supposed to be our protagonist. This writing choice makes the subsequent death scene, while cool and gruesome, lack gravity. Light didn’t chose to make his first kill of his own accord. He was pressured into it.
The movie hasn’t given me enough time to care about Light, to understand him in the slightest. I feel like his first kill was more like him having a gun to his head and he had no choice in the matter, which takes a major part of Light’s character away. In the manga, Light offhandedly tries out the Death Note, then he confirms it and has a few pages where he’s justifying his actions. They could have gone a completely different route with the first 15 minutes that would have accomplished so much more with the character. Which is why when we have the scene with his Father talking about the Mobster that killed his mother and then Light exacting revenge is far less satisfying.
This should have been Light’s first intentional kill.
You could play out the beginning of the movie nearly the same, except not have Light write the name of the bully down. Maybe add a part in the beginning about this guy who got off free from killing Light’s mother. Maybe a courtroom scene, or emphasize that Light is grieving in some way about the death of his mother and also that Justice wasn’t served by a broken system, foreshadow this moment.
You can still have Ryuk tempt him into killing the Bully, but don’t have him do it. Show some apprehension. Give the character of Light some room to develop and grow. Make Light’s first kill be about HIS choice to kill someone. That way we, as the audience, can have that moment of realization and impact with him. He learns, in that moment, that it works. That he took a life. So, when his dad says “Karma’s a bitch”, we can see that Light doesn’t show remorse. Instead Light starts having that feeling that he’s doing the right thing and that he can take it up a notch. Which shows us so much more about that kind of person he is becoming.
This quickly transitions into Light showing off the Death Note to Mia… because reasons. I honestly have no idea why revealed the Death Note to her. A realistic person would hide that power away and never tell anyone that he has the power to kill anyone in any way possible. But no, he up and admits to Murder to random girl he was, just a few minutes earlier, surprised knew who he was. Because, that would impress her? He then demonstrates this power to her, because again; he now for whatever reason trust that Mia implicitly. What’s to stop her from going right to the cops or the school to say that some psychopath creep is making a list of names in a notebook titled “Death Note”. I’m sure that would end well for him even if they didn’t link the deaths to him.
Mia and Light begin creating the entity of Kira and begin their Vigilante murder spree. This is shown through a teaser montage, and only get small snippets of the change that their actions are making interspersed with sex scenes that come off as them developing a creepy murder fetish, rather than attraction or building of their relationship. During the Kira montage, we never once see Light doing anything by himself, again showing that Light can’t take action without Mia holding his leash.
This eventually draws the attention of L, a mysterious character with mysterious access to mysterious mystery.
L is mysterious.
L is supposed to be a super sleuth who’s intelligence and deductive ability lead to his off putting mannerisms and lack of social propriety. We get to see elements of that with how Watari speaks to him, constantly reminding him to sleep or feeding him something other than candy.
L never uses any clever deduction abilities, probably because the writers couldn’t even be bothered to turn on an episode of Sherlock and steal a few scenes from Steven Moffat. He just makes random conclusions that we’re supposed to accept because he’s mysterious.
L eventually becomes suspicious of Light for some reason that he tells us, unprompted, and without any logic whatsoever. He just happens to know that Kira is getting his information from the Seattle database because reasons. This is something that could have been shown more during the Kira section of the movie. Have a few scenes where L is testing ways to track down Kira, or show him gathering intel from many different organizations.
L starts having agents tail everyone and their families that are associated with the Seattle PD.
The Seattle PD…
Which has 5 major precincts…
Each with hundreds of employees…
How is L able to ship that many agents into Seatt– You know what? I’m not going to get into that level of nitpicking or I’ll be at this for the rest of the month.
Light and Mia notice, because of course they do, and have she decides that they should kill all the agents to send a message. Light has a cooler head about it and dismisses this suggestion. Mia gets upset, because her character has now shifted to impulsive as the defining trait, and storms off.
Soon after all the agents L dispatched die, which was a cool scene and the explanation later on could have been a cool betrayal moment for Mia, but blindsides Light entirely even though it’s painfully obvious to the audience who did it. Light immediately accuses Ryuk of doing this, even though Mia had been the one to advocate killing anyone that stood in their way. This shows how weak of a character Light is. Manga Light would have seen through this right away because he had rational thought and resolve greater than that of a piece of tissue floating in the direction whatever breeze pushed it. Movie Light is just a pushover that can’t think for himself.
It’s at this point that the movie tries to shift from a suspense/thriller into a revenge flick. L finds out that Light has been manipulating Watari to try and find out L’s true identity, and this pushes him to lose his cool. He starts using brazen intimidation tactics, like meeting him in a coffee shop to out him as Kira and bursting into his home during dinner to throw wild accusations in front of his father (even though he’s been working with Light’s father, kind of) and then having the house torn apart by the police.
This highlights how L is not the cool calculating character we grow to like in the manga, but is simply a child that happens to jump to the right conclusion every time. He has no evidence or reason to suspect Light, which was a big plot point in the manga. Manga L goes into so much detail about how he suspects Light, but only about 60% based on what he’s been able to deduce. Movie L has no proof other than Light lives in Seattle, and he’s the son of someone that works in Seattle PD.
Light’s plan to use Watari to find L’s true name backfires because Light is an idiot and give Ryuk the power to choose how Watari dies, conveniently right before he’s able to tell Light L’s name. L finds out about Watari’s death at the same time, conveniently, which sends him into blind rage. Now L must take down Light, who he KNOWS beyond a shadow of a doubt is Kira. He takes a gun, steal a police car, and tracks down Light. Light, however, learns that Mia had written his name down in the Death Note and unless he passes the book to her before Midnight, she won’t burn the page that has his name on it.
The following chase scene makes no sense. Light is running through the side streets of Seattle. He’s ducking through back alleys and through stores, but still L is able to track him down in a police car. We then have to endure a poorly choreographed parkour chase scene that ends with just a hint of promise.
L catches up to Light in an alley, but then gets whacked in the back of the head with a 2-by-4 by what turns out to be a Kira supporter.
THIS is what I needed more of from the story. The cult activities and Kira supporters they glazed over in the montage from earlier. It hints at the social change that people long for and could have played as fantastic social narrative for our own political climate. That people desire change so badly, they would support a mass murderer.
This moment of proper foreshadowing and storytelling is quickly ignored, because the Climax and ending are coming up.
Death Note ends with a sub-par Hollywood set piece that just comes off as action packed trailer bait. It’s nothing special, and it’s resolution is out of left field.
Mia and Light meet up at a Ferris wheel from earlier in the movie (Yeah I only remember it from the trailers, I had a hard time finding it when scrolling back), because if you’re being chased of course you’d want to be at the end of a pier hundreds of feet in the air. Light and Mia argue about who should be the Keeper of the Death Note. Light makes a big deal that Mia needs to choose him or the Death Note at which she makes a huge sobbing declaration that she “Loves him so much” Mia snaches the Death Note from Light while he is slightly distracted.
If they had setup Mia’s character a bit more, her choosing the Death Note over Light would have been more shocking, but we see it coming from a mile away. Light however is shocked that Mia would choose the Death Note over him. Which just goes to show that even with the reveal at the end of how Light saves himself, Light naively thought that Mia would not act in the self serving manner that she has up to this point.
Ryuk then starts to force the Ferris wheel to collapse which ends with Mia falling to her death and the page of the Death Note with Light’s name on it falling conveniently into a fire barrel. Light falls into the Bay and we cut to the future where he is found in a hospital.
Light’s father shows up and reveals that he figured out that Light had been Kira all along, because reasons. So Light goes into exposition on how he got out of everything. This would have been cool had we more of this earlier on, but we didn’t so it comes off as convenient. While Light is revealing his master plan to his Father, L is so consumed with the need for revenge that he breaks into Mia’s house and tracks down a scrap of the Death Note that he is now suddenly aware of. As Light’s story comes to a close, Ryuk is laughing manically. Light seems to realize that something is wrong but we then get a Sopranos ending that makes you think that L writes Light’s name on the page he finds in Mia’s room.
Nat Wolff as Light is… okay. I see what they were trying to do with the character, and Wolff did as well as he could have with the direction he got. There are hints of what they wanted to do with his character, devolution into sociopath, but they never quite pull the trigger. It’s almost like someone wanted him to stay a sympathetic character the whole time. Like someone wrote his character a bit truer to how he is in the Manga, but then another writer came in and hacked it all up to keep him conventionally likable. He’s not supposed to be, he’s supposed to be a narcissistic sociopath with a god complex.
Lakeith Standfield as L is better, but not by much. His performance of L, I feel, was good; however the writing of the character L falls flat. He has the aspy body language down that you’d expect from L, however he doesn’t come off as calculating like L should be. Most of the time, he seems to be making wild assumptions that just happen to be right, and toward the end, he becomes frantic, which is not L in the slightest. L should have been the next coming of Sherlock Holmes, but he instead is just a one-dimensional antagonist.
Margaret Qualley could have been good as Mia? Maybe? But the character was so poorly written it just doesn’t make sense. I feel she’s the biggest plot point that Pidgeon holes the story into the direction that it does. The character of Maya in the Manga wasn’t all that important except for being a tool for Light to use. In this, she’s a conniving snake that pushes Light to become Kira. Their relationship is flipped so that instead of the predatory nature of Light’s relationship to Maya in the Manga, we get Mia controlling Light which makes him a weaker character.
Willem Defoe as Ryuk is fantastic, a spot of performance of what I would expect of Ryuk. The design is great as well. He looks creepy, veiled in just enough shadows that you never get a full on look at him, but enough that you can notice some of the details. He’s written just as you’d expect with one change, he’s given this slight Genie aspect where he twists Light’s words and requests around just to mess with him. The one major issue with Ryuk: There’s hardly any of him in this movie, I would have loved to see more of his interactions with Light.
Everyone else in this movie is fine. I really don’t have anything else to say about the rest of the cast, they’re just fine. I know it’s getting hate because of the whole white washing rhetoric, but it honestly doesn’t really matter in the long run. Death Note is a story that could take place anywhere, and if you’re adapting it to an American audience, you’d need American actors for it to appeal to a general audience.
In terms of casting, it could have been worse. With the unsurprising exception of Willem Defoe’s Ryuk, there’s not a whole lot the actors could have done with these characters.
Rivaling the pacing as the most egregious element to Death Note is music direction. There are track choices throughout the movie that make no sense for the scene they’re playing in, and a lot of times it’s too loud and drowning out the actors. This is unacceptable from someone like Atticus Ross, who holds an Oscar for Best Original Score for “The Social Network”, though after Death Note, I feel that was more Trent Reznor’s accomplishment than Ross’. With the exception of the Climax, I don’t even remember half the songs they chose even though I know I’ve heard many of them on the radio during a 90s at Noon segment. The original score written is so uninspired, I feel like just background noise crowd noise would have been better.
While Death Note is bound to garner the ire of its innate fanbase, and from what I’ve said I’m sure you think I hate this movie; but I don’t feel Death Note is in the realm of “So bad it’s unwatchable” the same way that Dragonball Evolution is. In fact, I’d say it was Okay; however, that’s the problem. Death Note should not have been “okay”, it should have broken the mold on Anime Adaptations and done for Netflix the same thing that Jessica Jones did for Marvel series. The whole endeavor feels bipolar, and it shows with the number of screenwriters on the project. I feel Death Note has gone through so many revisions and rewrites that while there are some good ideas in here, ultimately not one of the five writers could make it good.
Everything feels rushed and underdeveloped, which could have been fixed with a few establishing scenes. I feel if they added about 20-30 minutes more to this movie, they could have taken their time and developed their characters a bit more. Maybe add a few more interactions between Light and L. Or Light and Ryuk. Or Light and his father.
Just anyone other than Mia, who you hardly see Light without once they team up, she serves has the one holding Light’s leash for the majority of the movie. Because of this, the character of Light doesn’t demonstrate the control or intelligence that made him interesting in the manga. Many of the most iconic moments in the Death Note manga were the verbal and psychological battles between Light and L. In this movie, they have 3 mediocre scenes together and then a nonsensical chase scene. They spend so much time on Light and Mia’s relationship; but since Mia is written poorly, Light (and the movie) suffers for it.
The Cinematography is great. Death Note is a very good looking movie, particularly the set design of places like the Yakuza club or L’s work space are well crafted. I wish we could have seen more of them, but each scene is so quickly pushed aside that we don’t get a chance to them in.
The Musical score is god awful. The placing of some songs does not work in the slightest. Playing Chicago’s “I don’t want to live without your love” over the climax of the movie comes of as hammy as porky pig eating a ham and bacon sandwich… where the bread is replaced with Ribs. Who the hell thought that was a good idea?
I really did want to like Death Note. Initially I thought it was fine. Until I started thinking about it. There are some good ideas and interesting scenes, but they only serve to highlight the movies failures as a whole. So much seems to have been left on the cutting room floor, and some scenes seem out of order or missing.
Since it’s on Netflix, if you have a subscription and an hour and a half to burn, give it a shot. If nothing else but to see the heavily veiled ideas of a good adaptation. Then go read the manga up through Chapter 58. You’ll get to see why so many people hate this adaptation.
D+ : Too Many Cooks