Movie Review: NETFLIX’S DEATH NOTE IS DEAD ON ARRIVAL (MILD SPOILERS)

PACING, CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT, DAILOUGE, CINEMATOGRAPHY, CHEMISTRY, THESE ARE BUT A SHORT LAUNDRY LIST OF MAJOR PROBLEMS THIS “ADAPTION” OF THE FAMOUS ANIME SUFFERS FROM.

Oh, Netflix, why hath thou forsaken me? Though I guess, this shouldn’t have come at such a big surprise, American cinema doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to adapting things from a foreign market, at least not advertently.

Continuing that series of failed Japanese Anime adaptions, that will hopefully appeal to us Americans, Adam Wingard (“You’re Next”, “The Guest”) and Netflix’s collaborative joint is a misguided, and muddled attempt to bring such rich source material to life. The most frustrating thing about is it the source material isn’t all that hard to grasps, making this film even all the more troublesome.

Similar to the anime, Death Note follows Light Turner (Nat Wolff), who one day is mysteriously given a little black book called “Death Note” which after he receives, he is visited by Ryuk (William Dafoe) an ancient death god and guardian of the book, who explains that upon writing a person name in the Death Note, that person will die. Light becomes intrigued and begins to test the limits of the power of this book. Even enlisting the help of his high school crush Mia Sutton (Margaret Qualley), and attracting the attention of the world famous detective L (Lakeith Stanfield).

RIGHT OFF THE BAT!! My big criticism of this movie is its pace. HOLY CRAP, this thing moves way too fast. Clocking in at about an hour and forty-five minutes the film zips seemingly obliviously through what is a crucial part of any story, introducing and establishing us with our main characters.

Light gets the Death Note, damn near five minutes into the movie, and we haven’t even really established who he is as a character. I never got a chance to sit down and get a peek inside Light’s head. It’s only in a really poorly constructed dinner scene with his father, Pollice Officer James Turner (Shae Whigham) that we learn anything about him as a character, but by that time Light has already made his first kill, and we’re supposed to be on board because of the very fact he’s our main guy and he kills bad people.

From there the movie doesn’t stop throwing things at you and introducing you to new characters, but as mentioned the pace is so rapid fire that they aren’t very well established for us to be rooted or emotionally invested in them.

All would be forgiving if they actors that director Wingard had cast, helped made their characters motivations and moments on screen shine, but only two of the main cast manage to get these crucial elements across.

Stanfield is a fine L, it’s a shame the movie relegates him like all the others, to be a one-dimensional character who doesn’t really grow as the story progresses. Fortunately, Stanfield finds an angle that works, thanks to his apparent firm grasps on the character. Even though his manner of speaking dialogue became somewhat troublesome to decipher and comprehend.

Dafoe delivers what is required for the role of Ryuk, be creepy and sinisterly snarky, but outside of his initial speech, we never learn anything about Ryuk, other than he’s the death God and enjoys seeing the keeper of the Death Note kill folks. Such surface level character base makes this even all the more struggle.

Then there’s the manner of Wolf and Qualley as Light and Mia, who is a composite character of three different manners, which in turn makes the movie all the more stuffed and rushed, especially when the two of them don’t have any chemistry. It doesn’t help that Mia’s true motivations are so painfully obvious that by the time Wolf realizes it’s so underwhelming and more of an annoyance.

By making Mia the composite of many characters from the original source material, including one of the more crucial, the sociopathic side of Light, who begins to grow and become addicted to the Death Note, we lose the sense of urgency and place. For most of Ryuk interactions with Light, he’s warning our protagonist about the dangers the book may have.

But if those dangers are only represented in a secondary character and not Light, then they are just empty warnings that have no real consequences and it robs Light of a very much needed character arch. We don’t see the effect the book has on him specifically to surmise that it’s a threat.

Given this personal and defining character arc to Mia, is not only bad but a horrendous mistake. It makes the character of Mia a symbol and not an actual 3D dimensional character, just a subtext that is not either clever or meaningful because it’s so in your face that it comes off as less than ingenious.

Poor Qualley does the best she can with selling the character, but she’s not as talented, or maybe wasn’t given good direction or material to work from fully. Maybe she wasn’t able to sell it well because of egregiously wooden performance her counterpart gives.

Wolff as Light is one of the blandest leading roles I’ve seen this year, seeing as how his crucial arc is stripped from him, he’s delegated to being a creepy and uninteresting avatar for me as an audience to follow.

Using the Death Note, to impress some girl, we barely know isn’t compelling enough motivation to get behind this guy, nor is the later revelation that his mother died, mainly because we don’t get a chance to see its effect on him because, by the time it’s said, the plot has already kicked in.

Moreover, Wolff’s performance is inconsistent and becomes a problem in deducing what the defining tone of the film even is.

It’s not only the characters that suffer though, the technical side of this movie falls very flat. The cinematography is bland and looks like a CW production or a YouTube produced fan film.

The design and special effect of Ryuk feels rubbery and fake, there’s no real dimension to his aesthetic. Despite the effects team trying to give him movement and persona, he comes across more flaccid.

Calling this film a disappointment would be false because that would assume I was ever really invested in thinking this was going to work. Misguided seems to be the more appropriate word for this adaptation.

Yet it does as fuel to the growing groupthink that American producers should maybe hold back on adopting any more anime, especially if the end result will be reminiscent of Netflix’s Death Note.

 

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