Netflix Review: Death Note (USA, 2017) has good intentions, but fails in the process

Whitewashing! Americanized! Lack of ethnicity! Yeah, I’m gonna talk about that in great detail, just to make that clear. Anyway, a lot of negative buzz has been going around this project due the things mentioned above and it definitely is a valid argument since the source material is distinctly Japanese. So to retroactively set the story in another location would potentially leave a lot of things lost in translation, so to speak.

To give some hints about my prior expectations about this new film, I have never seen the anime nor read the manga, but I have seen the Japanese live-action films and I thought they were tedious and dull, due to massive amounts of exposition and shoddy filmmaking that makes it look like a television show, rather than an actual film. So, there really isn’t a high bar to reach here.

Another hint, I like Adam Wingard‘s work. From the well-made slasher flick You’re Next to the stylish neo-noir thriller The Guest and the proficient sequel Blair Witch, he does good work. When I heard his name was attached to this film, I had a glimmer of hope that this film would actually be quite good. Does the film stand out or does it deserve to be written in and taken out of circulation?

Death Note follows Light Turner, a high school student (Nat Wolff) who comes across a supernatural notebook, realising it holds within it a great power; if the owner writes someone’s name into it while picturing their face, he or she will die.

Feeling a sense of purpose with his life and driven by his anger due to an unjustly death in the family, thanks to his new godlike abilities, Light begins to kill those he deems to be unworthy of living. As the long number of kills gets ever higher, it draws the attention of “L” (Lakeith Stanfield), a enigmatic detective, hot on his trail.

My opinion on Death Note? Surprisingly enjoyable in parts, but for all the wrong reasons. With all the mythology that the source material has, the film just blitzes through it, rendering the film emotionally inert and amusingly ironic, since the Japanese counterparts suffer from too much exposition. You just don’t really care for any of these characters and when you are meant to, the film just turns into an unintentional comedy.

Wingard, who has used great soundtracks with his previous films has lost it here, executing scenes (in more ways than one) that are meant to be emotionally involving just got shrieks of laughter out of me. The film still looks great like Wingard’s prior films, thanks to cinematographer David Tattersall, but the style is all for naught. One change from the source material involves the executions of the death scenes. In the 2017 film, the keeper can write how people can die and it leads some surprisingly gory denouements.

But the problem is, the deaths are so overstated and serious, that it again becomes hilarious. The deaths are very similar to the Final Destination films but the tone of them all are similar to the deaths in The Happening. And no, that is not worthy of praise.

Also not worthy of much praise is the performances. Nat Wolff, who was fine in The Fault in Our Stars, is just awful here as Light Turner. Most of the time, he can’t live up to his character’s name and becomes dim but when the dramatic stakes are up, he goes for hysterical shrieking that made me laugh uproariously. Seriously, his shrieking makes Shia LaBeouf‘s shrieking in the Transformers films look thespian.

As for L, Lakeith Stanfield is fine in the role, although when the going gets tough, he is meant to play the character with fiery anger, but he comes across as annoyingly petulant, ruining the mystery and enigmatic feel of the character. Margaret Qualley does the best she can with the character of Maya Sutton, but her backstory is literally stated as being a cheerleader, not giving her anything to work with than just being a love interest, and when her gradual character change is revealed, it becomes hard to buy since we never really know her motivations.

The supporting cast are all okay, but nothing worthy of praise like Shea Whigham as Light’s father and Paul Nakauchi as Watari, L’s assistant. But the real (and only) standout is Willem Dafoe as Ryuk. He lends a lot of creepiness to the part as well as some much-needed sadistic sense of humour. But I wished they didn’t do the motion-capture route and just did some light touches of make-up on him. He looks like Ryuk already!

So that’s the American incarnation of Death Note folks. It’s good for a couple of unintended laughs, all sealed up in a shiny candy wrapper. There’s nothing here worth getting angry about, nor is there anything worthy of praise; the resulting film is more of a footnote than a Death Note.

Review Score: TWO STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

You can catch Death Note on Netflix right now.