Film Review: In Defense of Death Note

I decided to watch the Netflix movie Death Note having no prior knowledge of the acclaimed anime series. Going into it blindly, I think I probably enjoyed it more than anyone who has watched the series, but even I noticed some glaring issues with the film. Watch out, spoilers ahead.

Photo courtesy of Netflix

The movie centers around Light Turner (Nat Wolff), a high school student with a wayward moral compass who can’t seem to figure out if he wants to play the nerd or “dark outcast” archetype. Light’s world changes when a notebook falls from the sky and offers him the chance to kill anyone by simply writing their name in the book. The Death Note, as the book is called, belongs to Ryuk (voiced by Willem Dafoe), a death god who wants to create chaos and disorder on Earth and thinks that Light has the potential to fulfill these ideals. Light and his girlfriend Mia (Margaret Qualley) then spend most of the movie murdering anyone who they feel is a plague on society.

The movie feels undeniably American, and, unlike its Japanese original, often mixes humor with horror. Director Adam Wingard (V/H/S, Blair Witch) does a commendable job with the source material, given the fact he has 100 minutes to direct a film based on 37 television episodes. Wingard creates some truly terrifying moments, most of which center around Ryuk, whom Dafoe depicts brilliantly. It’s clear that he enjoyed playing Ryuk (it’s certainly not the weirdest character he’s played), and Wingard’s depiction of the death god is both terrifying and slightly playful.

Like Loki in the Marvel world, Ryuk wants to trick Light into thinking he has power, but he also gets joy out of making people’s heads explode on television. Wingard’s use of B-movie-style blood and guts feels right at home in this adaptation, and Light’s teenager reaction of laughter and excitement to these gruesome deaths mirrored my own.

Photo courtesy of Netflix

Light’s charisma and sarcasm keep people on his side just long enough to remember that he is in fact murdering people by the hundreds. He creates an alter-ego, Kira, to throw people off the trail (Kira is derived from the Japanese word meaning ‘killer’) and incites debate on whether these mass murderers and terrorists who are killed had it coming. The biggest problem is we don’t see any progression from Light to Kira. In the span of a 2-minute montage, Light goes from murdering one or two local criminals to international terrorists and dictators. Kira’s presence in the world feels underwhelming, when in fact it draws attention from law enforcement organizations across the globe.

‘Kira’ does catch one person’s eye in particular: L. Known only by this initial, L (Lakeith Stanfield) is both the most interesting and underdeveloped character in the movie. He’s an incredibly intelligent and unemotional human being who seems completely unapproachable, especially when eating mass amounts of candy. Stanfield’s portrayal of L is one of the highlights of the film; in fact, his dynamic with Wolff kept me intrigued right until the end. L’s character is often overlooked for less exciting moments in the film (Mia and Light have lots of sex, we get it), and this left me with a lot of unanswered questions.

Light manipulates L’s mentor and guardian, Watari (Paul Nakauchi) in order to find out L’s true identity, but even that feels half-assed: L is from an orphanage where they were raising super smart kids to be detectives…or something like that. L loses his mind when Watari is murdered, but we don’t see any concrete connection between these two characters. His reaction is out of place and feels inauthentic.

Photo courtesy of Netflix

Death Note’s biggest problem is the film’s pacing. Too much happens in too short of a time, and we can’t process everything the way the original material wants us to. The final scenes of the movie have the main characters unravelling quickly, and by the time the end credits roll, nothing feels resolved. That being said, the film kept me entertained all the way through. The soundtrack was spot on and made moments of insanity feel that much more unreal.

Death Note ends with Light sitting in the hospital, having escaped his own death, and Ryuk chuckling beside him. “You humans are so interesting,” he says, as L stands over the notebook with a pen in his hand. As we’re left to wonder if L kills Light, Air Supply’s “The Power of Love” gives viewers a sick sense of satisfaction. If L doesn’t kill Light, both of them will surely still be tormented by Ryuk.

Although the movie was less than perfect, it did make me want to watch the anime version. I didn’t see this movie as a reboot, but rather an homage to the original. Creating a new version of a cult favorite is always challenging; there will be naysayers and haters no matter what. Go ahead and give Death Note a try; you might just like it.

Kate Scott
Kate Scott

Kate Scott Daly specializes in music journalism. Her body of work includes live documenting over 200 bands, reviewing several albums and concerts, and multiple artist interviews. Kate continues to brave the photo pits of major music venues and outdoor festivals throughout the Chicagoland scene.