The thing about the adaptation of Death Note, premiering today on Netflix, isn’t that it’s bad. It isn’t even the questions raised by the whitewashing controversy. It’s that everything in it happens so fast that it’s hard to care about any of it.
Adam Wingard’s Death Note takes the manga’s original premise—a book that kills anyone whose name is written in it—with the frame of a, like, John Hughes misunderstood teen movie bolstering it. Then there’s an international manhunt and a governmental conspiracy raising wunderkinds thrown in. On top of that, there’s the previously-hinted-at-but-never-fully-explained backstory of L (Lakeith Stanfield, manic and weird as hell), which is invented for the sake of this movie. Then you’ve got the murderous 500 Days of Summer vibe that Death Note holder Light (Nat Wolff) and Mia (Margaret Qualley) have going on.
It’s a lot.
And that’s not even including the fact that the Death Note has rules—rules not explained by the death god Ryuk (voiced by Willem Dafoe), the spirit attached to it, and which appear to come and go depending on the needs of the story. Explaining the events of Death Note takes significantly longer than its 100-minute running time, mainly because people will keep stopping you with questions you will have no answers to.
It looks good—the violence is gory and shocking and constantly reminds you that these kids are playing with lives of actual people. But the moral dilemma is never allowed to land with the audience because there’s no breathing room. Knowing the original gives it slightly more weight, but if you were being introduced to the characters and story by this movie, you’re going to get lost.
The movie hurtles through Light finding the book, Light and Ryuk talking, Light and Mia arguing about who to kill, Light inventing Kira, Kira becoming famous as a vigilante killing morally reprehensible people, Light’s dad being assigned to the Kira task force, L showing up to hunt Kira, L’s backstory, Mia and Light trying to outwit L, more killing, betrayal, accidental murder, a homecoming dance, a big setpiece ending on a Ferris wheel, and a reveal that is so convoluted the movie has to spell it out with a voiceover. None of that leaves time to actually consider the gray-versus-gray morality of Light and L.
In fact, Light’s not really trying to cleanse the world of evil as much as he is a guy doing things to please his dad and his maybe-girlfriend. All of Light’s more crusading impulses are passed onto Mia—and that’s all we know about her. Whereas L gets a brand new background shoehorned into the movie, Mia is just... there, mainly to make Light more sympathetic in comparison. And to give the story someone for him to try and redeem.
Neither Wolff nor Qualley ever get to acting heights greater than a ‘90s teen drama. Dafoe’s an unsurprisingly great Ryuk, manipulative and charming. Stanfield’s performance is very weird and I wish it were in a movie that supported it better.
Basically, the movie just sort of washes over you in a sea of pleasantly constructed images, less pleasant acting, and no other impression whatsoever. You won’t remember it in a week, so maybe watch one of the other, better offerings Netflix has?