Death Note? More like Death Not very good. More like Death Note how this movie ruins solid source material. More like… uh Death… Death NOT GOOD. (killed it)
(Spoilers Ahead. This movie only really covers the same story as the anime/manga for the first 45 minutes, so if you’re worried about having them spoiled I wouldn’t say it’s that big a deal. Obviously, if you don’t want to know what happens in the actual movie, then watch that first.)
Death Note was originally a manga published between 2004 and 2006 that was adapted into an anime later that year. The plot revolves around Light Yagami, an intelligent, calculating High School student who receives a notebook called a “death note.” A death note is essentially a ledger for gods of death called Shinigami (the specific notebook belonging to one named Ryuk) to record people’s deaths. When a person possesses one, they are able to use the powers of the Shinigami to cause people’s deaths, so long as they know their full name and can recognize them. Light is accompanied by Ryuk and girlfriend Misa in his quest to cleanse the world of perceived evils, operating under the moniker “Kira.” He is hunted by law enforcement (including his father) and savant detective “L,” who attempt to stop him.
This movie adopts… parts of that. Light is now Light Turner, a high school student living in Seattle. He’s not really that smart anymore, and also his motivations are different, and his girlfriend is way more important in this one. But hey, we still have Ryuk.
The way L figures out Kira is operating in the Seattle area by deducing that his first victim was a guy who was only broadcast on local television was kinda cool.
The big reveal near the end of the movie where Light is explaining his master plan, while inconsistent with the rest of this movie, was ok. And the ending was fine I guess.
Everything that Light does with the Death Note is reckless. He begins by reading it, in the middle of the day, in his High School gym. When Mia notices him, he immediately tells her what it is and even proves to her that it works, because he’s dumb and horny and not good at hiding things. From then on, everything they do, including arguing about killing people with the Death Note at school, during the day is careless and self-destructive.
Everything about how the Death Note works, and what its rules are, is poorly explained and inconsistent. (More on this later)
During the big chase scene, Light is cornered by L, but is deus-ex-machina’d by one of Kira’s “followers.” There is practically nothing in the movie to actually set that up. (More on this later)
The Watari subplot, in addition to being really unnecessary and not having any payoff in this movie is dumb because
- It’s never actually explained how Light figures out his full name to use the death note on him
- Why does L not have any sort of surveillance or tracking on his partner, especially when he thinks that Light might try do something against him?
There’s also a bunch of minor details in this movie that don’t really make sense like:
- Why does nobody care that Mia is smoking on school grounds?
- Where did the person supervising Light’s detention go, considering not five seconds after she leaves Ryuk destroys the entire room and Light is screaming really loud but she doesn’t come back?
- Why are all of the relevant documents about L’s past just sitting in an abandoned orphanage in upstate New York? Wouldn’t he, or some of the other people at the detective institute or whatever, want to obtain or dispose of those documents to keep their identities secret?
- Why does L assume that Kira is one guy with psychic murder powers instead of a large group of people operating under one name?
So I guess the first thing to address is the “whitewashing” (and blackwashing?) aspect of this movie, cause it was getting some hate for that. Yes, the two main characters are white, yes they have American names, no it doesn’t change the plot or quality or “cultural significance” of the movie. The film takes place in Seattle, the characters are white, and so their names reflect that. This is probably the least offensive change that this movie makes.
Let’s start with Light. Light isn’t a bad character per se, he’s just really inconsistent. At times he’s this confident, arrogant, intelligent person (like Light from the anime), but he also has scenes where he’s acting scared and stupid and emotional. I think this is mainly a result of trying to adapt his personality from the anime (which is pretty unique as far as teenage protagonists go) and trying to reconcile that with a “believable” high schooler’s personality. In the anime, Light is extremely consistent, operating as this psychopathic genius who constantly fakes emotion to evade suspicion. The movie tries to make Light more “human,” by giving him emotions, but at times he’s also kind of a sociopath, because this movie wants him to be cool, while also not challenging the audience.
It’s also worth noting that this movie changes Light’s backstory a lot. In the anime, Light has an incredibly normal life (regular nuclear family, popular, good grades, etc.), and kills people because he develops a god complex from having the death note. Here, Light is a social outcast whose mother was killed, which gives him kind of an emotional motivation. Light doesn’t kill for pleasure or purpose, he does it because he’s mad at the world and wants to fix it. (Oh and because Mia tells him to, but we’ll get into that.) Nat Wolff does an ok job portraying this character. There are a few times where his line delivery or reactions are just laughably ridiculous, but overall I buy him as an angsty teenager. Well, actually, he’s pretty clearly in his 20’s, but I definitely buy him as angsty.
L in this movie is probably the character written closest to the source, which is also why he’s the most likable. He’s a hyperactive genius detective guy who solves crimes. One thing I didn’t like so much about his character is how much more emotional he is than in the original. In the anime, L (despite being really eccentric) is always very collected and rational. This movie portrays L as unstable, and he starts to kind of break down near the end. Of course, in the context of this movie, I think that the route they took with him is fine, and Lakeith Stanfield’s performance is pretty good.
Ryuk is also differnt in this movie, although it’s more his actions than his personality. He’s still really sassy and kind of a pain in the ass, but he now has a more active role. Anime Ryuk functions as a passive observer, just standing by and watching as Light descends into batshit insanity because he’s bored and doesn’t really care. In the movie, he oftentimes urges Light to kill people and seems to relish in him doing so. Again, this doesn’t make the character bad, just different. The practical effects were pretty decent, and Willem Dafoe did a great job with the voice acting.
All the other characters in this movie are pretty generic. Light’s dad is just a good cop guy. Watari is the badass wise old asian man. Mostly they’re just there for the plot, but that’s okay.
Now let’s get into THE WORST CHARACTER in this entire goddamn movie.
Mia Sutton is the worst. She’s unlikable, she’s sociopathic, but lacks the personality or motivation to make her character believable. I’ve been seeing Mia get praise for being a “strong female character” like Lady Macbeth or whatever, but she isn’t. Being a strong female character means defying gender roles/conventions and taking actions that would represent objective strength. In my mind, the key to a strong female villain is one in which the role could be taken over by a man and they’d be just as evil and compelling. Not only does Mia not really do anything except maybe save Light’s ass once, she plays into pretty much every stereotype imaginable. She spends the entire movie urging Light to kill as many people as humanly possible. She doesn’t care about anyone or anything. She’s extremely manipulative, but not in a clever way; rather, in the way that women are classically depicted as being. Whenever Light tells her “no, I don’t want to do that” she either yells at him or pouts.
Strong female character, everybody:
Let me explain why Mia Sutton sucks:
- She’s crazy for no reason.
Mia’s character could work if she was given any sort of backstory. She is not. What we get is an annoying, unhelpful character who’s just there to egg Light on. Even Light, whose own mother was murdered in a gruesome act for which he received no justice, is not as crazy or blood-lusted as this horrible person. Why didn’t Mia’s mother die instead? It would’ve made so much more sense. She constantly talks about how she wants to give people who have been wronged “justice,” and yet there’s no reason for her to want this aside from like, “ideology.” Her character’s emotionally charged, sure, but it’s not explained why. She’s just kind of like that, I guess.
2. She’s not charismatic.
If you’re going to be a psycho, then go for it. But at least be a fun psycho, like Patrick Bateman, or Heath Ledger’s Joker. Mia’s character is so mundanely psychotic that it’s laughable. I’m fine with Light’s girlfriend in the movie being a stereotypical white girl, but when it seems like she’s going on mass murder sprees in between god damn Starbucks runs it starts to get a little ridiculous. (Note: this is not an attack on Starbucks in any way. Ya boi loves him some Starbucks)
3. The only reason she’s in the movie is because she’s hot.
I’m not talking about the casting. Is Margaret Qualley attractive? Yes. Is it reasonable to cast attractive people? Yes. But, in the context of this movie, her character only works because of that attribute. Let’s review what Mia does in Death Note. She goes up to Light and asks him what the death note is, to which he promptly tells her everything and partners up with her. (Not that I blame him, I’d tell Margaret Qualley anything). Then, when she’s acting crazy and erratic and wants to kill his dad and stuff, Light’s like “you’re crazy and I don’t want to be with you anymore.” BUT THEN he takes her back anyway because she like sits on his porch in the rain and says “Light I love you” and he’s like “damn gurl aight come in.” I’m not saying the “crazy-hot” archetype of character can’t work. I mean hey, look at Harley Quinn (although please don’t watch Suicide Squad). But if a character’s only two traits are “is attractive” and “is a psychopath,” there’s a pretty big gap there for actual development. I don’t even think Margaret Qualley did that bad of a job for this role, but this character was written so horribly that I can’t take her seriously at all.
The Pacing in this movie is garbage. There’s no other word to use (well, actually). Everything feels so rushed and chaotic, yet it takes significant chunks of screen time to develop subplots and relationships that don’t matter. The first twenty minutes is sort of setting up Light as a character. Then we get a montage of him killing people. Then relationship drama. Then more killing. Then there’s a chase sequence. Then the big ending happens. Then it’s over. Light at the end of the movie is no different than Light at the start. In the anime, Light has an extremely prominent character arc, going from kind of a protagonist, to an anti hero, to a villain (like Walter White). But in this movie nothing changes. I guess in the last ten minutes he’s a bit smarter than he was at the beginning, but his personality doesn’t change.
In fact, no one in this movie develops as a character. Mia starts and ends as a bitch. Ryuk’s kind of evil or something. Light’s dad is the lawful good character who we’re supposed to side with. The only person who shows any type of development is L, who becomes more emotionally distressed as the movie progresses, gradually becoming increasingly unstable until he maybe sort of does something bad at the end (yay for ambiguity).
There’s also a pretty big section of the anime that’s dedicated to showing the rise of Kira and the influence that this mysterious presence has on the world. A lot of people begin to respect and worship Kira, because they see him as some sort of god. In this movie, that development is shoved into a few throwaway lines and not really explored, and yet it’s used as a plot device during the chase sequence. Gah.
I understand that adapting a full series into a movie is hard, but this film barely tried. The movie was just an hour and forty minutes long. Tacking on an extra half an hour to an hour of Light figuring out how the death note worked, or outsmarting L, or developing a manifesto, or really doing anything other than mass murdering people and making out with Mia would have made everything much more reasonable. As it stands, it has a beginning, end, and a middle comprised of pointless scenes and a few montages that’s kind of explained to us after the fact.
One of the most important parts of the anime is Light figuring out the various technicalities of how the notebook operates and using them to his advantage. The first ~10 episodes is spent solely on Light experimenting with various situations and learning new rules. This means that when he uses the death note to outsmart others, it makes sense how he knows to do so. In this movie, the actual rules of the death note are so poorly explained and inconsistent that it basically becomes a “whatever the plot needs” button.
We’re told that only the wielder of the book can use it, but various people other than Light use the death note to kill others.
We’re told that ownership of the book transfers after 7 days, and yet near the end, Mia demands Light hands the book over to her immediately.
Light’s big “master plan” completely revolves around the book being able to actually manipulate time and space to work. Ryuk tells him that all the deaths he writes in the book have to be “reasonable,” and yet Light uses it to do all these absurd things like destroy an entire ferris wheel. The actual powers and abilities that the book has are never really fleshed out or explained in a consistent way.
I’m going to summarize the dialogue of every character in this movie. Ready? Here goes:
Light: *Incomprehensible screeching*
Mia: Those people DESERVE JUSTICE Light. We need to do this FOR THEM.
Ryuk: You should kill that guy.
I combined these elements because this review is getting long and none of them matter that much. Basically, this film is shot like a horror movie, which makes sense, given that Adam Wingard is a guy who directs horror movies. Everything’s really dark and moody and sad. Most of the scenes happen at night. It rains a lot. You get the idea. The thing is, this movie’s not scary. Not that it necessarily needed to be, but it isn’t. There’s like one kind of gory scene (which looks extremely ridiculous), and then another gory montage, and that’s it. Also this movie’s supposed to be dark but a lot of the scenes are unintentionally funny or stupid which kind of ruins the tone.
There is one specific scene that I would like to talk about which is (spoiler alert) Mia’s death. Mia’s death scene in this movie is shot in a really dumb, sentimental way that kind of made me mad given how awful her character was. Basically, she falls off of the ferris wheel and into a bed of flowers and dies. We then get a shot of her face, which looks completely fine except it has a little bit of blood on it. Why does she look completely unscathed? Didn’t she just fall like 175 feet? Whatever.
Anyway, it’s not just the outcome of this scene that’s dumb, but everything about how it’s made makes it really anticlimactic and not very interesting. We get like a shot of Light holding onto Mia’s hand, and then the movie decides to cut out all the noise in the scene, and start playing this 80’s rock song that ruins the atmosphere. Time slows down, and we see Nat Wolff’s stupid face looking kinda shocked before we see Mia just sort of fall down along with the death note.
My main question with this scene is… why? It’s not referencing or paying tribute to anything from the anime that I can recall, and it’s so dramatic for no reason. Especially when we find out later that Light set all this shit up, it kind of feels contrived just to have this whole event around it. Maybe if she was likable the melancholy-ness of this scene would’ve fit, but it doesn’t.
I was trying to think why they would choose to shoot the scene this way (instead of having her just fall into the water like Light and the notebook), and I came up with this theory: the flower stuff is supposed to connect Mia to Ophelia (from Hamlet). Both are female characters who fall in love with the unstable main male lead and end up going crazy over time, eventually leading to them dying. Both of their deaths involve flowers in some way. You could even argue that Mia sort of caused her death by trying to kill Light (just like how Ophelia probably committed suicide), that Light’s hand is kind of like the willow tree? branches that Ophelia holds on to but loses grip of, and that both fall into a body of water (although Mia lands on the dock). I wouldn’t be surprised if the writers thought that Mia was actually a well written, tragic character like Ophelia, and gave her the death scene to reinforce that, but I would be surprised if anyone making Death Note thought even this much about anything in the movie. So this theory probably isn’t true.
Me when watching Death Note:
Death Note isn’t a bad movie, it’s just a poor execution of a good premise. Everything was so rushed that any gravity that the plot had fell by the wayside (as opposed to Light, who fell by the wave-side). Death Note kinda delivers the worst of both worlds. It doesn’t really make sense as a stand-alone film, because everything is poorly explained, but it doesn’t really work well as an adaptation either. So many things in this movie could have been changed to make it passable, but as it stands it’s just kind of unnecessary. I don’t say this often, but if you think that the premise sounded interesting, please, please watch the anime instead of this drivel. “DN,” more like “DNR.”
Good for: Netflix’s IP vault
Bad for: People who have seen the anime or read the manga, people who have not seen the anime or read the manga
Bod R8s: 3.7/8