So Death Note (2017) was an interesting movie to watch. I am going to say this up front: if you are a fan of the anime and/or manga, it is highly unlikely you will like this movie. I can imagine a lot of fans will find this movie downright objectionable. I will fully admit that I am a fan of the source material and it is hard to remove myself from that. I read and enjoyed the series years ago when it was first released in English. Having said that, I feel that people who have little to no affiliation with the source material will find little to enjoy. This movie is not terrible but it is not very good either.
The premise for Death Note is that a Death God named Ryuk is bored and wants to get some entertainment. He decides to drop the Death Note; a book that allows the user to kill people just by writing their name in it, into the world of humans just to see what happens. Enter the high school student Light Turner. Once he gets his hands on the Death Note and meets Ryuk, Light decides to use the otherworldly book to purge the world of criminals. Light simply needs to know the name of his target as well as their face in order to write their name down and kill them. This puts Light in direct opposition with an enigmatic detective known as L. The two of them then engage in a desperate game to defeat each other. The beauty of Death Note lies in its fairly simple premise. The main purpose of the set up in the original story is to have a logic game of fourth-dimensional chess between incredibly intelligent people. The movie decided to take a different route.
The story in the film really kicks off when Light meets Ryuk in one of the most unintentionally hilarious scenes I have seen since watching Alien: Covenant earlier this year. I think this is where things start to fall apart. Nat Wolff (Paper Towns) who plays Light lacks any gravitas or intensity of someone who would willingly kill people en masse. His backstory does a great job of setting him up as a person who has a grudge against criminals but the actor does not sell this in most scenes. As stated earlier, Light’s introduction to Ryuk is a huge issue. The way Light shrieks as Ryuk manifests himself in front of Light is honestly hilarious and feels like it belongs in a parody horror film, or a high school comedy. When the next major scene involves a high school bully getting decapitated in incredibly gory fashion, it feels like I am watching a completely different movie. The two scenes are incongruous with each other leading to a strange whiplash that happens quite often throughout the film.
Light starts dating a cheerleader named Mia (Margaret Qualley, The Nice Guys), who he immediately tells about the Death Note. He then displays his powers to her by using the Death Note on a hostage situation that is being displayed on TV. Shortly after the man’s graphic death, there is a murder montage of Light and Mia killing people intercut with them making out. It is these moments of seemingly unwitting dichotomy that make the movie incredibly funny at times. Given the material on display, the plot of the film and Mia’s role in it I can only assume that we are supposed to believe the two of them are falling in love but these scenes are absolutely bonkers in their execution. It is difficult to become invested in the characters or understand their actual intentions because of this odd back and forth in tone. The amount of time they spend on Light and Mia falling in love seems to take over the main focus during the second act as well, which becomes a bit of an issue when the third act rolls around. It gives the movie little time to build up Light’s main rival L, played admirably by Lakieth Stanfield (Atlanta). The character is set up and a bit of an oddball as he has weird mannerisms and an obsession with candy, but these qualities are dropped in the third act when things start to get dire. The movie at least sets this up as there is a specific event that rattles the man but unfortunately he is not developed enough for these changes in behavior to have a real impact. The plot even tries to set up a specific point about L’s views on the law enforcement that is put to the test when he is pursuing Light. The intention is to show how far L has fallen due to his anger and frustration towards Light, but the impact is weakened by his lack of characterization.
The issues in the third act are not limited to L, however. Light himself goes through a major shift in character at the very end of the film as well. The movie tells us he intelligent by showing us early on that he does homework for his fellow students for money. Beyond that, we don’t really see him display his craftiness very much throughout the film. His use of the Death Note is straightforward enough that it makes sense when L is able to pinpoint his location early on. What feels like a stretch is the reveal at the end of the movie when Light exposits the elaborate plan he sets up in attempt to ensure his safety. It feels out of left field because we never get to see Light display this level of intelligence or strategy at any part of this movie until this point. It is unfortunate as the focus on Light and Mia’s relationship takes up a lot of film time but when this comes to a head at the end of the third act, there is little payoff. The twist is somewhat dependent on our ability to buy into their relationship as well Light’s ability to strategize. The only character that seemed consistent was Mia, but that is because she was fairly upfront about wanting to use the Death Note throughout the film. Her character was not fleshed out much beyond this, so when certain aspects of her personality were revealed, they did not come off as a surprise to the viewer, but the characters in the film seemed to be shocked. Again, in the third act when Light and Mia are discussing the use of the Death Note, a dramatic scene is unintentionally hilarious by Light’s acting. Interestingly, Ryuk is perfectly played by real life scary person Willem Dafoe (Spider-Man). His gravelly voice and unsettling cadence of his speech work perfectly for the otherworldly creature. Sadly, Ryuk himself looks fairly cartoonish in this film and is often kept to the shadows as it seems the visual designers knew that his appearance was more silly than ominous. Frankly, given the comedic tone of the film, I think that Ryuk would have been right at home with everything else on display. Having said that, Ryuk’s inclusion in the story is almost inconsequential. Beyond giving Light the Death Note and explain some basic rules, he is given little to do. This is not helped by the fact that only Light can see Ryuk. Even Mia, who knows about the Death Note and its powers cannot see the Death God. He spends a lot of his time just chuckling in the shadows, as I imagine Willem Dafoe does in real life.
As I stated, I am a huge fan of the original source material, so please take my criticism with a grain of salt. With that in mind, I do feel that fans put a lot of focus on moral ambiguity in the original Death Note. While I do not feel it is wrong or pointless to examine it under this lens, I would argue that Death Note is fairly upfront about what the story is about. It asks some heady questions about morality and has some overt Christian imagery, but those are used more to develop the characters help us understand their world view. The series itself is used as a set of for incredibly smart people to plot against, lie to and outthink each other. The thing about this movie is that it focuses very little on of any of the series strongest aspects and goes for more of an underwhelming high school love story that ends with a checkmate without anyone actually playing chess throughout the film. There are moments where morality is discussed, but it does not really go anywhere. In Light’s case, it actually muddles his characterization. I feel this was meant to show him changing as a result of the events of the film but these changes felt unearned and out of place as there was no build up or foreshadowing towards them. The source material has elements of morality sprinkled in, but the main thrust was always the game of cat and mouse between Light and the authorities.
I think this movie’s biggest issue is its tone and theme. Neither of these aspects of the film ever seem to line up with each other. It takes some of the themes from the source material and mixes them incoherently with romance. Adding in aspects of romance or teen drama is not inherently bad but they never seem to integrate well with anything else on display. Honestly, I feel the movie would have been much more entertaining if they gave into the wackiness of some of the acting and leaned into comedy but I completely understand why they would have avoided that idea. All in all, I had a little fun laughing at many of the scenes as they were truly entertaining, but I cannot help but assume that humor is not the goal here. As an adaption of the source material, I would say it fails. If you are an avid fan of the anime of manga, it is very likely you will hate or even be enraged by Death Note (2017). If you are not familiar with the source material, you will probably find this to be a fairly dull and uninteresting film with a few moments of amusing sequences and unintentional humor. For me, this movie goes from dull to being a poor film due to its inconsistent use of characters and theme. I really cannot recommend this film for anyone besides the morbidly curious. Again, it is not a terrible film but it is just so lacking in so many areas that it ends up being boring and little confused, which is almost worse.