Welcome to What the Flick?, our section that examines how and why specific movies fail. These are not reviews, as our opinions are pretty clear from the get-go. These articles will also be rife with spoilers, to offer a complete analysis of the film in question. But can you really spoil something that’s already gone bad?
Death Note is a Netflix film based on the anime/manga of the same name. The film, not to be confused with the 2006 Japanese movie, also of the same name, chooses to be an American adaptation rather than a straight transcription of the original material. Unfortunately it does this in the worst possible way by refocusing the story, ignoring some of the concept’s most intriguing questions, and by completely falling apart in the last act.
Our protagonist is Light Turner, a maladjusted, brilliant (we’re told) Seattle high-schooler with a dead mom, no friends, and a crush who smokes. One day a notebook falls out of the sky in front of him (and several other people who presumably ignore it), interrupting his perfect-homework racket and setting the plot in motion. The notebook is the titular Death Note; writing someone’s name and mode of demise in it sics demonic entity Ryuk on the named individual. Light opts to use the Note to kill criminals and impress his crush, Mia. The decision to make Light and Mia’s relationship the crux of the film (which it is) is problematic for two reasons. First, neither Light nor Mia are likable characters. Light is a coward who loses his dignity within the first 10 minutes of the film (see Exhibit A) , and Mia is attracted to the power of the Death Note rather than Light himself. Normally standoffish, Mia jumps Light’s bones almost immediately after he proves that the Death Note works. There’s a delightfully off-putting montage of their “little deaths” as their victims face big, permanent ones. A fair chunk of the first two acts is Light questioning whether or not to continue helping the downtrodden until Mia begs him not to stop-he just has to keep going.
Despite focusing on the toxic relationship between a wuss who kills for sex and a girl who sexes for kills, the movie never suggests there’s anything wrong here. Remember, Light is allegedly brilliant, but it never occurs to him that Mia might grow frustrated with his lack of bloodlust and take matters into her own hands. The beginning, middle, and end of Light and Mia’s relationship is the arc of the film. Questions like: “Why can’t Ryuk use the Death Note himself?” “Why did he pick Light, specifically, to give the Note to?” “Who had the Note before Light?” “What happened to them?” “What if Light kills someone wrongfully convicted of a crime?” “How can he avoid this with certainty?” “At what point does a crime become worthy of a Death Note entry?” and “Isn’t it grossly reductive to kill someone based on media coverage of their crimes without knowing their side of the story?” are sometimes brought up and always casually dismissed. What could have been an engrossing cat-and-mouse game between Light and the Sherlock Holmesian private superdetective known only as “L” is wrapped up in the background. L tracks Light to Seattle in 30 minutes and pegs his man in another 20. But, because there are another 48 minutes of running time left, L chooses not to have Light arrested. L plays for “checkmate, not check,” or so he says. Incidentally, had L conjured a search warrant (he does this later) during his first unnecessary encounter with Light, he would have found the Death Note, replete with victims’ names and rules dictating the Note’s use. While the film’s decision to tighten its focus is necessary, its decision of what to focus on—and what to gloss over—is a disastrous misstep that leaves plot and thematic construction built on sand.
Speaking of necessary decisions that were made incorrectly, let’s discuss the film’s method of adaptation. Creating a movie out of a series requires some tightening and removal of details; this is fine. In order to stand out and present a reason to watch, the film also can’t just be a note-for-note (ha ha) reproduction of the source material. Thus the filmmakers decide to change the setting from urban Japan to Seattle, giving us an American take on the story. “Whitewashing” is another discussion for another article. To me as a viewer, an equally intriguing topic is what the filmmakers chose to keep from the original series. When Light first shows Mia the Death Note, he excitedly explains that he has “a death god,” meaning Ryuk. While both characters are skeptical that Ryuk is real, once this is proven they don’t give him a second thought. Sure, death gods are real. This seems more appropriate for a polytheistic Japanese culture than us monotheists across the Pacific. My point isn’t that the film should have spent an extra 20 minutes showing its characters trying to figure out how Japanese shinigami fit into their Western understanding of spirits and the afterlife. My question is, rather, why bring Death Note stateside but keep this particular aspect of the mythos? Ryuk could have functioned perfectly well as the grim reaper or some other form of Death incarnate; Willem Dafoe would still have been perfectly cast. Why have Light (a name as unusual in Japan as it is here) identify himself to the public as “Kira,” a Japanese pronunciation of “killer”? The film attempts to answer this by explaining that A.) “Kira” means “light” in Russian and Celtic (it doesn’t) and B.) the “more common” Japanese translation will lead authorities in the wrong direction. Remember, Light is supposed to be brilliant, but the filmmakers have him sign his name to every killing in order to keep “Kira” in the film. These may seem like minor points compared to the questionable acting and hilarious soundtrack inclusions of Berlin’s Take My Breath Away, Air Supply’s The Power of Love, and Chicago’s I Don’t Wanna Live Without Your Love, but the movie’s serious tone is that much harder to stomach when the producers turn in a half-daptation to make sure fans remember that this is a Death Note movie. Going for the referential connection hampers the film’s attempts to stand on its own, resulting in a finale that collapses on every level.
Decisions made by these filmmakers make sense in principle, but flaws in execution make the principle irrelevant.. If the devil’s in the details, the third act is a real trip to hell. At this point in the story, L has pegged Light as Kira and is dogging him constantly. Light and Mia have been fighting over whether or not they should kill the majority of the law enforcement agents investigating Kira, including Light’s cop father. Things pick up at the Winter Homecoming dance (where else?) when Mia reveals that she tore a page out of the Death Note and used it to kill several FBI agents. She’s also written Light’s name in the book without his knowledge. She’s specified that he’ll die at midnight unless he officially gives her the Note, at which point she’ll burn his name out of the Note, saving his life. As far as the movie’s concerned, being the official Keeper of a Death Note doesn’t seem to have any real benefits other than being able to see Ryuk. People entered on a loose page of the Death Note are still killed, as Mia has discovered. Why then does she care who the Keeper of the Note is? Her plan, presumably, is to keep the Note safe while Light is under scrutiny and continue killing if he’s detained. But, since she can do that with thrifty use of space on the Note page she already has, and since scrutiny would/should fall on her as Light’s girlfriend, the film’s climactic conflict makes absolutely no sense. The lovebirds’ relationship comes apart over tangibly nothing. Light is chased from the dance by L before he can resolve his issues with Mia, so he texts her to meet him at the site of an earlier date, the Seattle Ferris Wheel. Light defies both L and continuity by running into buildings at street level, dashing up flights of stairs, and emerging at street level again. He meets Mia at the top of the Wheel (where else?), which collapses after Mia tries to steal the book. Light is brilliant (remember?) so he’s written in the Note that the Ferris Wheel collapses, Mia falls to her death, the page of the Note with Light’s name on it falls into a hobo’s barrel fire, and Light himself falls into the water surrounding the Ferris Wheel where a future victim has been written to find and resuscitate him. Aside from being able to control the minds of others before they die, it seems the Death Note allows its Keeper to control physics itself; maybe Mia was onto something after all.
The film’s jaw-droppingly inept conclusion manages to surpass even the Ferris Wheel scene. Light wakes up in the hospital, Note in hand. L finds Mia’s loose page covered with the names of dead FBI agents. Light’s father reveals that he’s discerned Light’s alter ego. Then the credits roll. That’s it. Light is not arrested. Light is not killed. He isn’t even yelled at. L is tempted to write Light’s name on Mia’s page but his ultimate decision is unknown. For a movie that’s allegedly concerned with justice, its ending is staggaringly consequence-free for its protagonist. Sure, he’s lost Mia, but he’s okay with that. It’s the “lesser of two evils.” There’s a huge difference between leaving a loose plot thread for a sequel to pick up and not ending the film. This crowning head-smacker of an “ending” suggests only one thing: the film has collapsed entirely. Unable to hold up a plot that made no sense, a relationship that nobody roots for and a mythos that is alternately embraced and ignored, the filmmakers scream “jenga!” and go home, while the audience is left with a pile of bricks to sift through. Netflix’s Death Note is a lot like one of the ham-fistedly symbolic apples Ryuk eats: regarded by its filmmakers as neat, handled casually, and just as quickly thrown away.
Death Note in and of itself is a trench coat double katana’s wet dream so…. can’t really make it worse.