More noise than signal

Death Note

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

I suppose I’ve been aware that Death Note is a thing for a while now, specifically an anime thing that’s on the list of Things I’ll Keep Saying I’m Going To Catch Up On, But Plainly Never Will, Given Current Experience. That list needs a snappier title. At any rate, it seemed this Westernised Netflix adaptation would be a foot in the door, but for aforementioned reasons if you’re looking for a review to tell you how accurate a translation it is, I am not your boy. In this sense. In all other senses, I of course remain your boy.

Infeasibly named high school student Light Turner, played by infeasibly named 22 year old Nat Wolff, because of course he is, heaven forfend a teenager play a teenager, makes an ill-advised stand against the school bully that doesn’t go all that well for him. Opportunity for vengeance arises when demonic death god Ryuk, voiced and mocapped by Willem Dafoe, drops the titular notebook into Light’s lap. As long as Light knows the real name and face of a target, simply write their name, and if so desired the dispatch method, into this book, and lo, they are forcibly shuffled off this mortal coil.

After taking the opportunity to kill the man who killed his mother in a hit and run accident, he reveals this exciting addition to his library to fellow youngling and soon to be girlfriend Mia Sutton (Margaret Qualley, also 22, oi vey). Spurred on by her, the two resolve to use the Death Note for good, by murdering hundreds or thousands of alleged criminals without due process, using the book’s limited method of victim mind control to create the diversionary fiction of this happening under the aegis of a divine Lord Kira.

This does raise the question that if, in this Westernised adaptation, the Japanese name Lord Kira is chosen to throw investigators off the scent, in the original work, do they similarly arrive at a cover name of Lord Baxonby Fotherington-Smythe?

Speaking of investigators, there’s some immediate family tension caused when Light’s detective father James (Shea Whigham) announces he’s joining a team of investigators into these Kira killings – an investigation not sitting well with a public who rather approve of criminals scattering in fear of their lives. Not, it turns out, that James does much of the investigating, that being left to the enigmatic, possibly insane L (Lakeith Stanfield), with his mysterious past becoming a plot point later. L is essentially handled as a souped-up Sherlock Homes, and he makes inroads into this case at some rate.

This spooks Light and Mia, with Mia pushing for the murder of the investigation team as a precaution, but clearly patricide isn’t on the table for Light. All of these tensions push towards an unremarkable climax on a Ferris wheel, which I believe was the title of Morrissey’s third solo album.

Death Note is resolutely alright, but no more, and frankly there’s not all much to say about it. I suspect this is why almost as many column inches are devoted to allegations of whitewashing rather than the film itself, because it’s more interesting to talk about. I’ll largely refrain from than here, apart from suggesting that people review what the word “adaptation” means, and also point them at much more egregious and obvious examples such as Ghost in the Shell.

As for this film, our protagonists and antagonists put in adequate, but unspectacular turns, which is enough to drive the plot forward, but without ever making it feel like anyone cares all that much about the events that unfold. The premise is interesting, but there’s no real tension around anything that happens apart perhaps from the end sequence that engineers some, but only through some ludicrous contortions that almost makes me wish they hadn’t bothered.

There are positives, mostly from Ryuk, who is one creepy looking character, and Dafoe, who is also one creepy looking character, but more importantly for this film, a creepy sounding character, which lends him an air of quiet menace that’s a high point of the film. It’s tempting to wish for him to be featured more heavily, but it’s probably the more sparing appearances that keep it special.

As for the rest of it, it feels like a bit of a squandered opportunity. For example, for my money the most interesting part of this is the following that this seeming new divine entity Lord Kira gathers, with quickly-blown by new footage showing cathedrals being torn down by worshippers of this new God. It’d be interesting to dive into that, where here it seems as though it’s only mentioned to set up an assist from a member of the public when he’s being chased by L.

I suppose that’s best suited for an episodic format, which circles back to the central question of “why make this film?” It’s had some terrible reviews which I think are a trifle harsh, but I’m not going to pretend that my predominant feeling towards this film isn’t mild disinterest. I’m happy to take it as read that the original Japanese works are much better, but perhaps the most critical flaw I can find in this film is that it’s very much dampened my enthusiasm to watch any of them. I’ve a few niggles with the nitty gritty details of how this film’s rules work, and are related to us, but to be honest when the bigger picture is off there’s no point slandering the minutiae.

As a standalone experience, I’ll give it this – it takes more than a few risks with its content, themes, morals and characters, and that’s more than most mainstream Hollywood output can say, and with an admittedly sizeable but not insane budget, it looks about as good as any other live action comic book adaptation. I’m sure that will endear it to many, and in a lot of ways I wish I liked it more – I can at least appreciate what they were aiming for – but in the end I can’t recommend it to general audiences.