Death Note is a dull and simplistic YA that never truly finds its footing
From 13 Reasons Why to To The Bone, Netflix seems to be caught in the middle of controversy quite a lot. It comes from the very fact that the streaming service is willing to green light anything that passes through their desk. While that sometimes gives us some interesting movies like Okja, other times it leaves us with rushed and shallow movies like Adam Wingard’s incredibly simplistic Death Note.
Adapted from the manga and anime of the same name, it follows Light Yagami (Nat Wolff) as he finds a supernatural book capable of killing anyone anyway by just by writing their name in it. Obsessed by his new found abilities, he and the demon of the book, Ryuk (William Dafoe), start killing criminals.
On the surface, Death Note is a great idea for a dark thriller/horror movie. As it’s adapted from a manga and anime, it can’t get that recognition. But, what I can give it credit for is the beautiful re-imagining of Ryuk played brilliantly by William Dafoe. Ryuk’s design fills the screen and Wingard stylistically use him. He always seemed to be lingering behind the shots, and it’s chilling. Throughout the film, he’s a presence that is both welcomed and creepy. He even goes beyond that representing the dark side of Death Note. It’s a side that clearly wants to prevail, but unfortunately, Wingard never lets it take over.
There isn’t any sense of identity in Death Note that the audience can cling too and it creates confusion. At first, the film seems to want to be a horror film following in the steps of Donnie Darko. However, it’s never as dark, and when it adds comedy, it feels rather awkward in a sense where it blurs the line between serious and funny. In the second half of the film, it detracts from it’s Donnie Darko inspiration and falls into YA tropes which dilute the horror aspects of Death Note. Light and Misa (Margaret Qualley) are written like a typical YA couple, and Light’s motives for killing becomes his relationship with her, which is a terrible incentive for a movie.
Even if Light and Misa are our main characters, we never get a chance to explore them beyond high school stereotypes. It’s quite simple; Light is the goth and Misa is the cheerleader. They never go beyond their singular characteristics, and for that very reason, they aren’t interesting. The viewer never gets to understand their actions or their motivations to do certain things.
A lot of it feels sacrificed for style, and while there are flashes of brilliance, Wingard makes too many awkward stylistic choices. Some of the stylistic choices in Death Note feel hugely out of place. As an example, the 80s soft rock soundtrack clashes with the film’s atmosphere. But similar to the tone, Death Note‘s soundtrack isn’t consistent. It throws in some synth-pop and techno songs when it’s convenient to the film’s tone. These choices only feed the YA tropes and look like an attempt to appeal to a greater audience.
Even with all these critiques, Death Note‘s most compelling element is its dark themes, and they are extremely simplified. Wingard has no idea how to explore the big questions brought up by the premise of the film. There are big ethical issues and dark themes that should have been explored, but the film only dedicates one line of dialogue to acknowledge them. It feels as if the film is more interested in the tension of if Light will get caught or not and that’s not a problem. However, there should have been some time dedicated to explore the ethical question surrounding the killings of criminals or even show how that god-like power can run people mad. These are all interesting elements that Death Note tried to bring up, but it’s so poorly mishandled that they become worthless.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Wingard surely is a passionate director worthy of delivering great movies. However, Death Note is a sloppy and ultimately pointless adaption of a darker more mature source material. The film makes plenty of awkward choices, and the most striking is the white washing of Asian characters which continues to be a big problem. Although casting Asians in the film would have changed little from a critical stand point, it would have certainly been a step forward from a cultural stand point. As of right now, Death Note is just another disposable and shallow American remake of a much better Japanese anime.
Death Note is currently streaming on Netflix.