Death Note (2017)

August 29, 2017 - 5:03pm | Toby Johansen

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Adam Wingard
Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield, Margaret Qualley, Shea Whigham, Willem Dafoe

I'd consider myself a Death Note fan, mostly the Japanese live-action films that perfectly captured the entirety of the source material by filmmakers that knew what they were doing and actually cared about both the source material and making two good movies. I was a fan of Adam Wingard's earlier works like Home Sick and You're Next, lately however he's been making duds like the atrocious Blair Witch and some of his shorts in ABC's of Death and the V/H/S series that range from okay to terrible.

I knew there was stuff going on behind production of Death Note for a few years where Shane Black was set to write and direct at one point, but somehow it made its way to Netflix and into the hands of Adam "Y'know" Wingard, it was an odd choice but I kept an open mind. After watching the film, it was disappointing and rather embarrassing.

In case you're not familiar with the manga or anime, Death Note is a story about an intelligent student named Light who finds a notebook where whoever's name you write down in it they will die. With this, Light adopts a god-like complex, the public naming him "Kira", to rid the world of criminals, while also being watched over by an apple-holic death god, Ryuk, who just wanted to see what would happen. Along the way as Light is purging the world of criminals he's being hunted down by an eccentric and equally smart detective known as "L" who wants to bring Kira to justice to uphold the moral standards that killing doesn't solve anything.

That's the basic idea of this film as well, but if I go over comparing the source material to this American remake we'll be here all day so I'll just give you what they did well and what they did wrong.

The visuals were well-directed from time-to-time, with many shots of the city during the day and night and colorful lighting that gives it an 80's feel which warms the cockles of my greasy heart and scenes with shades of grey lighting, also done with dreadfully good taste. The special effects are done rather well, even with the CGI it looked polished enough to not be awful, but there's a decapitation in the film that, while a good effect, the editing made it unintentionally hilarious for me. The movie has a comedic tone to it that doesn't really match its dark tone.

Willem Dafoe totally kills it as Ryuk, every time he was on screen he was always fun to watch, even if his part wasn't as super animated and lively as the Ryuk from the source material or the live-action Japanese adaptations, he was a mixture of a creature suit and a CGI face which was great since that's a nice way to bring back practical effects and have it work hand-in-hand with CGI, along with keeping the character in nice mysterious dark shadows.

While some fans may have had a problem with the casting choices, I can honestly say I loved Lakeith Stanfield as "L", for the first two halves of the film, he perfectly captures the body-language, voice and reactions that L being very smart, eccentric and having a love for eating candy to keep himself awake to solve crimes. But then by the end of the film he becomes a completely different character that kind of ruins his persona and makes him come off as predictable and lame. As for the rest of the cast, their acting ranges from just okay to unbelievably awful. Some of the characters we're suppose to care about or feel conflicted for feels like extremely forced chemistry that isn't handled very well.

I feel that the writing in this film was too dumb to be smart, in fact the pacing of each scene feels incredibly rushed so you don't really get enough time to latch onto characters to care about them or the story. The movie sometimes forgets that it has a story when unrelated stuff happens with our main characters, Light and Mia. I suppose Mia has some kind of death fetish and loves Light because of that? Who knows, who cares. I understand the film was trying to be its own thing, as some people keep crying to the Death Note fans, sadly the film doesn't really know how to be its own thing because it's like a long trailer filled with familiar scenes from the source material and just a few changes around it. The editing makes the film feel so rushed like they're trying to get to the next best thing but it never happens and it starts to get annoying after a while.

I feel the film is also very passive-aggressive about the moral dilemmas and existential questions that were the driving force of the original source material, while here it's just Light is in love with Mia and they bond over a Death Note not because he wants to be the god of the new world and rid the world of criminals for his own warped ideals, but because he wants Mia to like him, it really undermines the character a lot even scenes when he's talking to his dad or L about the Kira case and the dialogue is so flimsy it's so obvious how much he's giving himself away, again the writing is a hack job that doesn't know what it wants to be.

That's a glaring problem, they had this material they could just make up on their own with some respect to the fans and could still have the same core to whatever story they could've told, but then it feels like it has to cut and paste so much character and story beats from the source material that it barely has any room to breathe and be its own thing, really it just makes you think why even bother if they couldn't decide what to make their characters into, it just feels like an overall stupid mess.

Adam Wingard's Death Note is a below-average remake that keeps fighting over whether it wants to be its own thing or just be an exact adaptation of the manga. Willem Dafoe is cool as Ryuk and is really the only reason anyone should see this. Fans of Death Note will be sorely disappointed that it's not a faithful adaptation, or they might get a kick out of the references the movie has at the service of forgettable characters and messy writing. Genre fans may find themselves confused or see this as just a run of the mill very standard movie that could kill an hour and 40 minutes, before just tossing it onto a pile of mediocrity.

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Toby Johansen




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