Reviewby Jacob Chapman,
Death Note (2017)
High school outcast Light Turner wasn't looking for trouble when an ominous, tattered notebook fell right in front of his feet during a freak lightning storm in Seattle. Unfortunately, a death god named Ryuk, eternally bound to its pages, has chosen Light to be the newest player in the Death Note's game, urging him to use the notebook's power to kill the people who've wronged him, from schoolyard bullies to crime bosses.
After being encouraged further by his impetuous girlfriend Mia, Light begins a new crusade to rid the world of crime permanently, but his police detective father and the eccentric mastermind known only as "L" have very different plans for the murderous persona Light has named "Kira". As his new enemies unite to bring Kira to justice, Light realizes there's no backing down from this game without paying a deadly price, and he may be forced to choose the lesser of two evils to survive.
After at least four live-action Japanese movies, two TV series (one anime, one live-action), and mountains of spinoff media, Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata's gruesome thriller manga is no stranger to the perils of adaptation. Netflix's decision to free Death Note from the throes of production hell might have been considered a risky move by studio executives, but for anime fans, this choice of material was obvious, widely beloved yet familiar to the point of fatigue. Death Note gave director Adam Wingard and his team an unusually golden opportunity. Despite the now-standard concerns over whitewashing or bowdlerization from fans, there did seem to be more vocal hope for this project to succeed than any American anime adaptation before it.
For an audience that's seen this story's plot and characters get tweaked and flipped in so many ways for over a decade, this Seattle-set Death Note had far more carte blanche than most anime adaptations to try something new. The original story was a plot-centric thriller driven by shocking twists, but its major turns were already burned into the brains of even casual fans, so changing the details in this game of wits could be seen as a welcome surprise for Death Note lovers rather than sacrilege. Even concerns over the lack of Japanese casting were more muted than similar outcry had been for Ghost in the Shell, if only because there were already numerous Japanese live-action versions to carry that torch. So with killer source material and an unusual updraft of good faith under Wingard's wings, it seemed like Death Note had the best chance yet to earn the blessing of the general public and hardcore fans alike with something entirely new.
True to their word, Wingard's team has created a Death Note that nobody's ever seen before. In a world of halfhearted imitations trying to kickstart a franchise on familiarity alone, their effort not to repeat lazy mistakes of the past deserves some praise. Unfortunately, they also created a Death Note people aren't likely to watch more than once, fans of the material or not. This movie doesn't just fail to replicate the battle of wits between Light and L, it opts not to play the mystery thriller game at all, soaring to another genre ballpark entirely to run bases past Donnie Darko, Final Destination, Heat, and a dozen other incongruous influences before its ambitious but confused new game gets rained out completely by a disastrous third act.
Comparing the Death Note manga to this movie is an almost parodic exercise in affirming stereotypes about Hollywood adaptations. Light's initial motivations for using the notebook are personal vengeance and getting laid (in that order), literally doling out ludicrous gory demises while he makes out with the head cheerleader. As the film leaps from one visually captivating setpiece to another in Wingard's skilled and speedy hands, there's no time for Light to set his trademark layered traps or ponder the true meaning of justice. Then again, Nat Wolff's Turner never comes across as being capable of such nuance, showing even less remorse over murdering loved ones than the sole moment of doubt his (supposedly) more psychopathic forebear felt after killing two despicable strangers. Character assassination aside, the problem is not that this new Light is stupid and shortsighted; the original manga proved that putting the Death Note into less capable hands can be entertaining, and plunging Death Note's premise into wild anarchy has its own appeal too. The problem is that the characters all claim Light is supposed to be smart and goodhearted. This laughable assertion dims everyone else's bulbs (especially poor wasted L) and clouds the audience's ability to empathize with their poorly-defined beliefs, largely just flippant platitudes like "karma's a bitch" floating in a morass of moral bankruptcy on every side.
Its love of flippancy is what ultimately kills Death Note 2017's lukewarm attempts to take its own story seriously. Between all the profanely goofy quipping and an onslaught of obstacles that are eternally solved by abusing the "limited" control Light has over his victims' actions, the movie's rogue attempts to build tension and drama always feel like a waste of time. Its devil-may-care tastelessness does keep the film compelling, bursting with style and shameless self-indulgence in every subtlety-free scene, but that also leaves it mocking the viewer's desire to find a drop of humanity in its dark subject matter, no matter how hard its tragically talented cast chews the scenery. (Every single actor's performance, even Wolff at the height of his nebbish squealing, proves they deserve much better than the script they were dealt.) The cat-and-mouse chase that once defined Death Note has been traded in for a chaotic game of idiot ball where the "thrill" comes from wondering how Light or L will blunder into the next dumb impulsive decision, punctuated by wacky tonal gaffes like the most baffling use of a Chicago ballad in history (followed by at least a top-ten-worst use of an Air Supply song).
It's hard to imagine Death Note aficionados being pleased with something so flagrantly disrespectful to its source material, but there's still reason to rejoice in the specific flavor of badness we were gifted. Rather than being dull or disposable, Death Note 2017's desire to be different no matter the cost gives the movie its own maverick charm, inimitable by the flood of safe remakes we forget one week after they hit theaters. (Lookin' at you again, Ghost in the Shell.) There's a trashy kind of triumph that rises from the uniquely poor decisions holding Death Note together, and every fan should watch it just once for a one-of-a-kind example of how adaptations can go wrong. I can honestly think of only one other movie I'd compare it to in crass ghoulish style, whiplash tone problems, confused religious metaphors, and tasteless melodramatic twists that go from "what?" to why??? in an insane third act: Alexandre Aja's Horns, which freakishly shares an exact Tomatometer with Death Note at the time of this writing. If you sincerely enjoyed or just enjoyed being baffled by one of these movies, you should definitely check out the other, and perhaps pray that something so engrossingly misguided comes along again soon.
Of course, we may be getting it sooner than we think, since Death Note 2017 ends by threatening a sequel so hard that it retroactively destroys its own resolution. When the credits transitioned from this crassest of cliffhangers into lighthearted behind-the-scenes footage, as if desperate to undercut its own tone just one last time, I couldn't really decide whether I loved or hated this truly awful adaptation. All that really matters is I'll never forget the experience.
Overall : C-
Story : D
Art : B
Music : C+
+ Wildly entertaining and briskly paced, great casting for its more lurid take on the material, strong direction and cinematography will elevate the bad writing for fans of schlocky cinema
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