In short: don’t waste your time on the new Netflix Death Note movie. Lee reviews.
While Netflix’s Death Note is most assuredly a failure, and a failure certainly worth detailing as a matter of science, there’s little to gain from pretending that the film has absolutely no merits. Some choices, while ultimately to be cast as flaws for either not being seen through thoroughly enough to truly succeed or simply due to the lack of service given to them by the scattershot script/budget/timing/intentions should otherwise be praised in their efforts.
Adam Wingard, an energetic and already proven horror director, does attempt to make a freshly American take on the original Death Note series, and it almost works. Reskinning the long-game psychological thriller of the source material around the bones of a traditional 80s supernatural high school horror, with the added meat of a gory exploitation film, is a novel idea that, on paper, should work. The Japanese live-action Death Note films carry enough warning signals in their execution to prompt an alternate route when bringing the series to the big screen and Wingard adds enough flair to almost pull it off.
Colourful neon-laced aesthetics brings the vibrancy of the anime adaptation to life; inspired casting in Willem Dafoe and Lakeith Stanfield imbue the more exaggerated characters with a fluidity that translates as well as you can possibly expect from live action; swishy, leering camerawork makes for some of the most visceral rubbernecking around, keeping your eyes glued to the trainwreck long after you realise there’s no substance to be found – it all shows that there is some honest work here that, under different circumstances, would likely stand fine on its own two feet.
But Death Note is a disaster, with which there can be no doubt, most of which unfortunately has to be laid at the foot of a directionless script. Poor characterisation never fully gives us someone to root for, let alone a reason to root for them. A shallow romance takes centre position in this story, one that should entice us to see the differences in morality between the two lovers as they fight for dominance as gods of the new world, yet we so sorely lack motivation, chemistry and even an idea of stakes or scale that it all feels like a microcosm in a vacuum.
One that furthers feels drowned out by the more interesting yet less developed cat-and-mouse game that surrounds it; a game that shows how truly inept a mouse can be and yet how much stage freight the cat can have? Detective L never seems outmatched or outwitted at any single point, but almost for the sake of sheer convenience becomes further and further shaken by the game, making him feel as stupid as the kids he’s trying to catch.
The Death Note itself adds interesting paranormal elements to the story, but none beyond the central modus operandi help explore any particular facet of storytelling whatsoever. Rules exist to serve ends the audience will see coming from miles away, leading to a finale of contrivances that feel like foregone conclusions rather than works of cunning and ingenuity. The end result is a psychological thriller that proclaims its besting of its audience before ever inviting them to play the game.
It feels very much the product of too many cooks trying to steer a project in different directions: some with the mind-set of staying true to the manga, and others with an idea of how to reimagine this for a different genre of film. The result is something in between: a beat-for-beat retelling of the early chapters of Death Note where the power plays and moral exploration of the original are poorly mixed with shifted character relationship dynamics, shared romantic sentiments and a story not of a man’s twisted desire to change the world at the cost of his own humanity, but of his desire to do basically whatever someone whispers in his ear until he thinks he’s being cheated on, “mans up” and sets the law down with his gigantic brain (something the film desperately hopes you’ll remember from the opening montage of the film before you sit through an hour and a half of a bumbling idiot actively undoing that persona).
It is by no means an offensive movie, or a difficult movie; nor is it interesting in the slightest, nor thrilling, nor surprising, nor fun – Death Note simply is. You can throw as much Dutch camera angles and quirky character traits at it as you want, there’s nothing to be made thrilling here and, so, can be recommended to no one.
Do check out the original manga or anime though if you haven’t had a chance; there’s a reason Netflix tried here, and let’s not pretend they’ll be the last to try again.