Overview: Light Turner (Nat Wolff) stumbles across a notebook with the power to kill any person whose name is written in it. He uses this power to rid the world of criminals, a secret crusade that earns the attention of master detective (Lakeith Stanfield) known as ‘L’. Netflix; 2017; TV-MA; 100 minutes.
Context and Translation: There are plenty of people out there who can more authoritatively and comprehensively address the issue of whitewashing in this adaptation of a uniquely Japanese story. But as a fan of both the manga and the anime on which this film is based, I believe that Death Note offers the chance to explore elements of modern America rarely touched on. In this context, to deal with the smirking certainty of a teenager who remotely doles out vengeance by his own distorted moral code is to get into the mindset of the internet’s own ugly habits of anonymous trolling, abuse, and doxxing.
This is what an American Death Note could be, but it is not the one we were given. There is little attempt made to use its Seattle location to explore how a different culture reacts to this situation, nor is there much adherence to the source material’s moral conundrums and complex cat-and-mouse game.
No tension, No Terror: Death Note, like many adaptations before it, seems eager to be over as soon as it begins. There is no way it was going to barrel through the 108 chapters worth of story in its runtime, but it tries its best, glossing over every potentially interesting element of its story. Its one distinguishing feature is the excessively gory Final Destination-style deaths, which are favoured over the rushed moments that could have otherwise been milked for their horror, tension, or moral complexity.
The worst and best moments of the movie come from the performances. Right away we are delivered into a high school world of cartoonish bullies and dismissive teachers, in which the extremely irritating duo of Light Turner (Nat Wolff) and Mia (Margaret Qualley) are self-proclaimed outcasts, with ‘Normal people scare me’ literally written on the inside of one of their lockers. Qualley isn’t an issue, but her character may be one of the most poorly-written characters I have had the displeasure of seeing in a good while.
Wolff, on the other hand, is profoundly obnoxious in the role. His first reaction to seeing Ryuk, the CGI death god voiced by Willem Dafoe, is so bad I don’t think I will soon forget it. Speaking of the CGI creature, Dafoe’s voice is a perfect match for the threatening monster, but he is constrained by a script that doesn’t have much use for him, and a look that the camera seems a little embarrassed to capture without going out of focus.
Faring better is Lakeith Stanfield’s ‘L’, a great character bolstered by a peculiar and intense performance by the actor, who conveys so much with only his eyes. His character isn’t given much time to develop, but Stanfield’s empathy sets him apart from other highly-intelligent, antisocial detectives that are becoming increasingly common in television. In fact, the moments with just Stanfield and Shea Whigham are the best in the film, as the two pros elevate the material by their sheer talent.
Missing the Point: All this sounds like a mixed bag, but what pushes Death Note over the edge is its choice to frame Light as a misunderstood anti-hero, caught between a rock and a hard place. While he learns the perils of power, people die because he heard their names on the evening news. He wants to be a god to people, but the movie frames him as a superhero. The violence is gleeful entertainment, without the brutal impact that is necessary when dealing with a morally complex story such as this. There is no distinct psychology, philosophy or even strategy behind Light’s actions, so he comes across as an idiotic and flippant teenager.
Casting an African-American actor as ‘L’, in direct opposition to a white ‘saviour’ whose murderous actions are always rationalised and even admired by the media, is a powerful dynamic to play with. Reminded by the fact that Stanfield also appeared in Get Out earlier this year, I can’t help but think what this project would have looked like in director Jordan Peele’s hands. In this way, and many others, Death Note shows aspirations to dig deep into the meaning of its text, but none of the commitment to follow through.
Overall: Maybe as a Netflix series this could have worked better, but Death Note’s problem is a moral one. Choosing to avoid the ethical questions integral to the premise in an effort to craft a half-assed superhero movie leaves the movie forgettable at best, watchable only for Lakeith Stanfield’s memorable performance.
Featured Image: Netflix