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Movie Review: Netflix’s Death Note Makes Me Want to Put My Name in the Book

Based on the famous Japanese manga written by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, Death Note follows a high school student who comes across a supernatural notebook, realizing it holds within it a great power; if the owner inscribes someone’s name into it while picturing their face, he or she will die. Intoxicated with his new godlike abilities, the young man begins to kill those he deems unworthy of life.

Going into watch Netflix‘s latest original film, I knew very little about the Death Note manga or anime having never read it or seen it (and also not enough to reflect on any whitewashing controversies surrounding it). So, when judging this film I get to go in fresh without preconceived expectations and coming out the other end, I can’t say I have any interest in exploring the source material.

This Death Note takes place in Seattle with a story that feels a bit like a messed up Mean Girls “burn book” meets Se7en. Actor Nat Wolff is Light Turner who is presented with a book that when he write’s their name and envisions their face, they die. Light has the power of a god to decide who lives and who dies and after using it for a bit of revenge decides to use that power in a messed up Punisher/avenging angel sort of way. Helping Light with the killing is Ryuk, a demon like being voiced by Willem Dafoe. Sadly Dafoe delivers a performance that sounds like that of his iconic spin as the Green Goblin in Spider-Man and thus had me envisioning that for everything. Also involved is actress Margaret Qualley as Mia Sutton who Light brings into his world and becomes corrupted with the power. We never get a good sense on her other than she becomes a temptress in a shallow character that should be so much more. We’ll also ingore the idiotic romance that just doesn’t fit and shoehorned in.

Directed by Adam Wingard, Death Note is tonally all over the place with a beginning that feels a bit like a comedy reminscent of Raimi’s Army of Darkness and by the end it feels like a messed up Degrassi along with acting that’s just a shade better than a made for tv movie. Basically, I can’t tell what was being gone for here. Is this a horror film? Is this a comedy? Is this a horror comedy? Is this a superhero horror comedy? The film shifts through all of this and never decides what it’s identity truly is. By trying to be everything it comes off as nothing much.

Things aren’t helped by actor Lakeith Stanfield whose “L” is beyond comedic in a performance that I’m pretty sure is not meant to be. Stanfield’s “L” is supposed to be more like Brad Pitt in Se7en (my take) but comes off as a background character in Hackers with a twitchyness about it all and a lack of sleeping. It’s hard to take any scene the character is in seriously. Paul Nakauchi as Watari feels a bit wasted but Shea Whigham as James Turner stands out among the bunch with a performance that feels natural and authentic. Whigham, the best of the bunch in acting, feels like he’s in a different film with his performance. Again a tonal mess.

What’s sad is there’s tons of potential here and you can see it touched upon over and over. The concept of vengeance, the people worshiping this avenging angel, the twists and turns, it’s all there for a thought provoking story. Instead we’re dealt with a half assed comedy horror whose ending is so convoluted you wonder when the characters became that intelligent and why they weren’t doing that to begin with.

With so much other quality things debuting this summer to watch, this is a Death Note that should be added to its own book and put out of its misery.

Overall Rating: 4.0