Let me start by saying that this is not a good film.
I wanted it to be good. I really did. I watched the anime back in 2008, have read a handful of the manga in last few years, and own three of the four Japanese life action adaptations so, whilst I might not be a complete fan boy like some of the people out there, I am versed enough with Death Note’s previous incarnations to have been very excited for this release. That excitement quickly ended.
It took me a while after its release to get round to watching it, so I have seen the majority of the reviews that sprang up online but, even with all of this negative press, I gave the film the benefit of the doubt. It really could not be as bad as everyone was saying. Due to this I began treating this film as a separate entity, watching it as if I was someone who had no prior knowledge of Death Note – essentially most of the people that will be most likely viewing this film. This feeling of mine lasted for about the first hour of the film, after that point what occurred was so laughably bad that I literally shouted at the TV during the third act.
Even though the majority of my problems occur within the last twenty minutes of the film, the awful things appeared from the very start.
For starters Nat Wolff is not a good main character, full stop. The only thing I have seen him in prior to this was the awful ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ and even as a secondary character in that I could see that he was not a powerful enough actor, especially to take on the role of Light in Death Note. His performance is terrible. For a character that is supposed to be portrayed as a sociopathic genius, Wolff plays him as an easily scared loner that is more High School Weirdo than someone who is soon to have a severe god complex. His literal high pitched screams at the first sight of Ryuk the Shinigami (essentially Death God) perfectly sums up that this interpretation might not be as cool and calculating as the source text version. Light is meant to be seen as a bad character, that is literally the point of the whole thing. Yet this film paints him more as an unwilling victim of circumstance. But, again, I was treating this as a separate entity, so I accepted it for the time being.
Talking of Ryuk, the other reviews have stated that Willem Dafoe’s portrayal is the highlight of the film and, although his voice work is perhaps one of the only good things, the rest of the idea surrounding the character soured this performance. For starters their was a conscious decision – whether for budgetary reasons or to make Ryuk seem more ‘real’ – to have the shinigami as a physical entity rather than use CGI (as was the case in the Japanese versions). So essentially we are given a guy in a weird suit, and oh boy does it show. With most of his appearance banished to the back of a blurred frame I was getting more B-Movie vibes than terrifying creature. The one and only (and I mean ONE) time we are shown Ryuk in all of his clear glory what should have been a chilling moment is marred by somewhat dodgy CGI. In the credits we are shown that Defoe did motion capture for his performance and I truly questioned why as we didn’t really see any of it.
For a time the shining light came from Lakeith Stanfield, most recently seen as one of the victims in the brilliant ‘Get Out’, as L. His portrayal and ability encapsulated the others and had me having hope for the rest of the film. Then something happened in the third act that changed that, but I will come to that later.
In terms of the narrative, this Americanisation was supposed to bring Death Note from its Japanese roots and give it a reason to exist within the USA. At this is failed, miserably. Although it is placed within an American High School and deals with the usual teenage drama – making it more of a very bad John Hughes knock off than anything else – little else has been transposed as many of the sources Japanese references stay intact. Narratively it is used as a way for the characters to disguise themselves but, for someone who has read the source text, it comes across as lazy, for everyone else it is just plain weird. Why would this American set drama have so many Japanese references?
Whilst not a straight up adaptation – and one of the reasons why I attempted to view this from the standpoint of someone who knew nothing about Death Note – there is a lot of stuff placed into the hour and forty run time. Because of this compressed time limit a lot of the motivations of the characters are not as clear as they should be. This presents a few plot holes that are dispatched in a single line of dialogue. Hiding them behind the fact that the titular ‘Death Note’ has so many rules that the main character has not bothered to read.
So, lets get to the final act.
The trouble escalated during a climactic scene where one of the main characters is in a life or death situation, a scene that should hold a lot of weight as we have been “invested” in this character for a while. But just as the scene progresses a song called “I Don’t Wanna Live Without Your Love” by Chicago 19 plays out and it is so misplaced within the scene that I burst out laughing, instantly destroying the minimal amount of tension I had accumulated by that point. Literally google the song and then imagine it playing over a really tragic scene… say Dobby dying in Harry Potter. Go on, I’ll wait.
Ridiculous right? This was supposed to be a really dramatic event and they play this song? But that isn’t the worst thing. The film tries to give us the ol’ switcheroo with a generic evil guy monologue at the end detailing this incredible masterplan by Light. Yet, based on everything that has come before it, the fact that this cleverly thought out plan sprang from this shrieking excuse of a main character feels completely wrong. At no point throughout the entire film has he shown such forethought, such intelligence to come up with such an idea. We are given a flash of his “genius” at the beginning when the character is paid to complete someones homework, but that only makes him seem more like a nerd than a genuine genius. I honestly did not believe that this incarnation of the character could even contemplate everything that occurred in this plan.
Then the final moments of the film finally came and it was here that the final nail was hammered into the coffin, a coffin that contained my benefit of the doubt, a coffin that sealed the idea that I was simply viewing this as an outsider and made my nerd rage so much that I once again shouted out at the television.
In the hopes of giving the film an ambiguous ending that could possibly act as a sequel hook – as well as completely deviating from the fantastic ending provided by the manga – the film places the character of L in a situation that he would NEVER be in. The closing moments show a life and death decision that is completely against the character. Much like Light, at no point throughout the entire of this film had L shown any hint of this kind of motivation. He simply would not stoop that low. Yet this film – again remember this is just for an ambiguous ending – completely goes against everything this character stands for. Imagine if in Lord of the Rings that Sam killed Frodo for the ring, it simply would not happen. So why on Earth was L put into the situation that is presented in this film?
Even from the standpoint of someone who knows nothing about Death Note the final choices of Light and L make no sense on a character level as neither of them showed any hint that led up to their final moments.
Death Note has been quoted by one of its producers as being “very grounded but still has fantastical elements.” however these fantastical elements are not mixed in well with the narrative. They feel really out of place when they should feel a natural part of the story. So when a film gets one of its key components so drastically incorrect, you know that something has seriously gone wrong.
I wanted to give this film the benefit of the doubt, I really wanted to like it, honestly I did. Yet what I was given was a crappy, lazy, cheap, poorly acted American version that did not stay true to the characters and, to be honest, was a rather boring film even if I was not somewhat versed in the source adaptations.
Watch again? – Yes, but only once I have made someone watch the Anime and the Japanese versions first, then only so that they too can see how bad this film is.
Buy on Dvd/Blu Ray – No