Death Note (2017)
Written by Charley Parlapanides & Vlas Parlapanides, Jeremy Slater
Directed Adam Wingard
Angsty Seattle teen Light Turner has a potent weapon literally drop out of the sky, the Death Note. Light finds this leather bound journal is a device that can kill anyone who the bearer knows the face and name of. The target’s name is recorded on a page of the book and Ryuk, the death god who accompanies the book does the rest. It should seem pretty obvious that Light ends up way over his head very quickly. He ends up sharing his secret with Mia, a cheerleader at his school and she takes to the book with a disturbing glee. Soon the series of strange deaths, all befalling known criminals, draws the attention of authorities and an unusual detective known only as L.
I have been a fan of Adam Wingard since I saw his slasher horror flick You’re Next, which does some clever subversions of the genre. I followed that up with The Guest which is probably my favorite of his films but was some what disappointed by Blair Witch, that didn’t do much with the genre of found footage. Then we get to Death Note, an adaptation of a Japanese manga and anime. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on the criticism of recasting Asian characters as white, as that has been extensively covered in many other forums. I’ll look at this purely as a movie, which just from that context there are a lot of problems.
The conceit of Death Note is an interesting one, and a moody teenager getting a hold of the book has the potential to explore some interesting philosophical ideas. Instead…the film just doesn’t. It becomes a cat and mouse chase between Light and L. The romance between Light and Mia, is interesting, very poorly developed, but her sociopathic tendencies become the aspect that keeps you watching. The movie believes this is a genuine love story, but I would argue that Mia’s entire motivation after seeing the power of the Death Note is to get possession of it. It appears this is the case upon a particular reveal during the winter dance scene, yet moments later we have this slow motion sequence that seems to imply they love each other. It would be dramatically interesting to have Light in love with the idea of her Love, while Mia just wants to have the book for herself. There just isn’t enough time devoted to their relationship for it to ever feel fleshed out.
That is a big overall problem with the movie: Pacing. Everything moves so fast in the first third, and then the brakes get slammed for the other two-thirds of the film. The detective L is introduced in a confusing way that left me wondering why there had been no set up for this scene, or rather a more focused view that let us know a little more about who this person was. L is played by Lakeith Stanfield (Atlanta, Get Out) who is a good actor but is given a truly annoying character to play. L is quirky to the point of taking me out of the film. I get that Wingard is developing a hyper-stylized pseudo-reality in this world, but L’s mannerisms feel like a writer thinking they are cute rather than adding anything to the story.
Throughout the film, I just kept thinking this would make such a good television series where plot beats would be allowed to stretch out and develop. L’s introduction, for example, could be a whole spotlight episode, so when he meets Light for the first time, there is a tension established. The relationship between Light and Mia could be allowed to have high and low points before the climax takes place. I’m sure if this is a result of television telling cinematic stories and fleshing the characters out better or a screenplay that seems manic about pulling in every single plot point of the source material. While not as bad as M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender, Death Note is trying to tell every piece of a story rather than focusing and telling the core parts well.