Adam Wingard’s sleek adaptation of the classic anime/manga of the same name proves that anime movies can be pretty awesome when translated to live action. Those of you who know me personally probably know that Death Note is my favorite anime so naturally, I was pretty hyped to see this. It’s hard not to compare this to the anime, which is significantly longer and dives way deeper into the psychological mechanics behind the main characters, but I will judge this first and foremost as a film as opposed to a live action anime adaptation. I also know that I might be biased so I waited a few weeks before writing this review to let the hype simmer down (I don’t want another Batman v Superman scenario happening in which I give a movie a high review and later find that it actually sucks). Many of you are going to read that score at the top and complain that it shouldn’t deserve that, but this is my honest opinion. With that said, let’s get started.
Death Note is about a high school student named Light Turner who finds a book that allows him to kill anyone by writing his/her name down. All you have to do is get a name and a face and specify the details of the death. With this killer notebook, Light is able to see Ryuk, a death god (Shinigami) who explains the rules of the book. Light gets the idea to take care of all the bad people in the world and creates a name for himself, Kira. As people around the world start to worship Kira, a world renowned detective known only as L begins tracking down Light since he believes Kira is a mass murderer. What happens next is a game of cat and mouse.
Sounds awesome? That’s because it is! The show goes even deeper than this so I highly recommend checking that out. Netflix’s Death Note adaptation benefits greatly from the source material’s central themes. Think about it, a lot of people would use a book like that for small crimes, but our main character actually uses it to get rid of the worlds biggest criminals. While I don’t know if it’s moral, it definitely allows the audience to sympathize with Light’s rather morbid decisions. That’s hard for a film to do especially if the main character isn’t necessarily a good guy.
The film has a lot of condensing to do, and this causes it too move at a breakneck pace. However, when this is combined with Wingard’s wonderful use of cameras and colors, the film’s fast pace works and keeps you on the edge. This highlights the best part of this film: Wingard’s direction. His use of constant camera movement and dark color scheme make certain items or important figures stand out due to to excellent use of lighting. This is shown with items such as an apple or the character Ryuk. Clearly Adam Wingard has a deep respect for the anime as shown through various illusions to the show and specific character traits that made the anime characters so memorable. The main thing I have against this film and Adam Wingard’s direction by extension is that it’s not long enough.
This film is an hour and forty minutes when it should be at least two hours. When condensing a show of long character arcs and highly detailed narrative beats, you have to take a moment and show the intricacies of the situation.Things move fast, but they often move too fast. Wingard seems to forget the core conflicts of this movie. What are the boundaries of good morals? Is it okay to take a life for the sake of others? Instead, he focuses on a rushed romance between Light and Mia. I know Wingard has said multiple times that this is not a straight adaptation of the manga and that this movie will cater to American audiences, but I don’t think an unhinged R-rated film is obligated to have a high school, young-adult-novel-esque romance as a main central plot device. This movie should have been about one man’s difficult decisions and how he justifies his actions, but instead, we get a rushed conflict between Light and his girlfriend that just makes Light seem less smart and more innocent. One of the things I loved so much about the show (and I’m sure Adam Wingard knows this as well) is how calculated and weirdly sociopathic Light acts. The show’s Light is always in control and always thinks of ways to one up those who oppose him. This Light sometimes makes it apparent that he’s acting out of fear of his own death and of his girlfriend more insane morals. Yes, this version of the character is fine, but I think Wingard missed a great opportunity to truly delve deep into the psyche of his main character.
As far as acting is concerned, Death Note does a great job with showing the expressions between the lines. Nat Wolff does a good job as Light, and you can see the little intricacies that make his character go beyond the script that was given to him. If his performance was just based on the lines he had, there would really be nothing, but Wolff sells scenes just through his line delivery and the way his face reacts to crazy things he sees. I loved how he didn’t go over the top even though it’s very easy to given the circumstances because that would have made the movie cheesy (although, if we’re being honest, I would be screaming at the top of my lungs like a child throughout this movie if I were him, but then again, I can’t act). Margaret Qualley also does a good job as Mia with what she’s given. I thought she was great in The Nice Guys and she hopefully has a strong acting future ahead of her.
The two standout performances in this movie were easily Willem Dafoe as Ryuk and Lakeith Stanfield as L. Willem Dafoe absolutely nails it as the voice of the humorous death god. His voice has a very scheming and sadistic, yet playful tone and the CGI talent behind the character was impressive. My problem with the character is that there isn’t enough of him. He was easily the best character in this movie, and you’d expect the filmmakers to know that, but I guess they wanted to focus on the teen romance instead. The other standout performance was Lakeith Stanfield, who faced some controversy following his casting. I honestly don’t get why people were worried about the casting because if we look at Stanfield’s track record, he’s been in some great movies recently. He portrays the nuances of L so well that I thought he was ripped out of the show… until a certain point in the movie when he loses his mind and I lost track of the character, but that was at the end and not Stanfield’s fault. I hope that Stanfield gets cast in more movies as he shows a good range of acting here.
The other major positive I can say for Netflix’s Death Note is that it feels unrestrained, and that mainly has to do with it’s necessary R-rating. I was right to be worried when I saw that Ghost in the Shell, a recent anime adaptation, had a PG-13 rating because these shows sometimes only work when you include the adult themes. Death Note is not supposed to be a flowery, watered-down movie with no blood; it’s supposed to be a gorefest with Final Destination-like death scenes. While those scenes aren’t fun to watch (they aren’t supposed to be), it adds a sense of seriousness and realism to the movie that gives me reason to believe why people take sides on the idea of Kira. Modern films based on popular franchises don’t take risks like this because it means losing a large portion of potential viewers. It might just be that it’s a different business model with Netflix, but hats off to the filmmakers for making a risky business decision and giving this movie the rating it deserved.
It’s no secret that audiences and fans of the show/manga have bashing this movie for the past few weeks. While it currently holds a 42% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes (signifying mixed reviews by critics), it has a 25% audience approval score, which is honestly abysmal for a big budget production of this caliber. Seriously, all the Transformers movies have better audience scores than this. I really don’t believe it should be getting all the hate from audiences that it is. It’s a well directed movie with great acting, gorgeous visuals, and some cool concepts. I think it’s better than Ghost in the Shell and miles beyond Dragon Ball Evolution, which means that Death Note is my favorite anime movie to date. Technically, is this a bad movie? When you’re dissecting the movie, you start to see the flaws pretty quickly. The film does have major pacing issues, and characters can sometimes not live up to their moral standards, indicating a somewhat confused script. I think that if this movie took more time to explain why Light Turner is Kira, this could have been a great anime movie. However, I’m not going to lie when I say I liked Netflix’s Death Note so it’s at least worth giving it a shot.
That is my review for Netflix’s Death Note! What do you think about the movie? Do you agree or disagree? Do you think I should have mentioned something? If so, feel free to let me know in the comments section! Thanks!
Categories: Movie/TV Reviews