Since its release on Friday, Netflix’s adaptation of Death Note has been savaged online by fans and critics alike. And while I agree that it isn’t exactly good, I can’t bring myself to hate what is merely a mediocre film. Death Note (2017) has been plagued with issues since it was announced and while some of those are apparent in the final product, it’s biggest issues are a truncated run time, and a failure to understand its audience. Like many films in recent years, Death Note labors in the limbo between strict adaptation and reboot. It changes enough that it’s not merely a retelling of the same story, and yet it holds on to so much from the original that isn’t able to stand on its own.
The original Death Note is a complex story that manages to juggle elements of a morality tale, supernatural story, and detective fiction by creating compelling and complex characters. Clocking in at 100 minutes, Death Note 2017 glosses over key character developments going so far as to montage some of the most compelling narrative arcs. It does eventually find a compelling story in the cat and mouse game, but it’s too little too late to totally salvage the movie, but its enough to find some entertainment value.
Whether you should or shouldn’t watch this film will come down to your investment in the original. This is not a project for devotees or total neophytes. If you’re less emotionally invested in the source material, you will probably be able to find some enjoyment in it. That’s about all I can say safely without spoilers.
SPOILERS AHEAD (for anything and everything Death Note)
You’ve been warned.
The biggest issue with this adaptation is Light Turner. First of all, why name him Light? It kind of works in the manga, but if you’re going to change the last name, why not the first. This adaptation’s insistence on hanging onto some of the more Japanese aspects (like calling himself kira and referring to the book as a note are other examples) keep it from successfully working as a stand alone picture. If you’re going to change the setting and the story, you need to be more flexible.
Second, Light is introduced as a compromised character. In the manga, he’s a brilliant student and unquestionably a do-gooder. Half the story of Death Note is the corruption of Light as he tries to hang on to power. In this version, he’s not established as a strong or intelligent, he’s just a generic broody guy and it’s only after L is introduced that we’re told he’s a genius. I can’t really fault Nat Wolff. I think he found some interesting takes on some Twilight level dialogue, but the character is so poorly written it actually impacts the narrative.
Light is motivated not by a desire to do good, but seemingly only to impress Mia. This actually works in the later narrative, but this just adds to the teen romance aspect at the expense of greater character complexity. Turning Light’s ascension to Kira into a montage was a huge mistake. We don’t get to see his ego grow or his need for recognition, just a lot of gory deaths and quick cuts.
You can tell the production team really wanted to just skip ahead to introducing L, which isn’t actually a bad thing. Lakeith Stanfield brings the character to life and once he starts chasing Light, the story starts to work. Yeah, the final chase action sequence was a little over the top, but for the most part this movie finishes strong. As much as I struggled with the beginning I found myself enjoying the last half or so. The actors are all pretty solid, the cat and mouse stuff gets genuinely tense, and even the Donnie Darko-esque soundtrack kinda works. Also, this was easily the best Ryuk we’ve ever gotten on screen. Willem Dafoe has a great voice for the character and Jason Liles’ mocap work really brought him to life. I only wish there was more. I don’t know that it earns a full redemption, but I certainly can’t bring myself to hate it.
Anyway, before I go, I just wanted to share the moment in the first two minutes that almost made me give up.