Movie Review: Death Note

By | August 25, 2017

One of the rare Netflix Original movies that may be slightly underrated by critics. This film—about a teenager (Nat Wolff) who receives a mysterious “Death Notebook” that allows him to kill anyone whose name he writes in it with the aid of a nefarious demon (voiced with delight by Willem Dafoe)—isn’t perfect by any stretch, but it is original, cross-cultural (the source material is Japanese, and the second-half especially feels this influence), mostly well-acted, and contains a fully realized, immersive world the way no Netflix original movie quite has since “Beasts of No Nation” came out two years ago.

What Works: The Leftovers’s Margaret Qualley shines in her first lead actress role, playing an ambiguous love interest that might be even more blood-thirsty than Wolff’s death dealer, to say this tweaks the usual cheerleader/redeeming-hot-girl archetype would be putting it mildly. Shea Whigham does his usual solid supporting work, and it’s always a pleasure to see him. And Dafoe is clearly having a ball playing a genuinely frightening demon. But mostly you’ll either love or hate this movie depending on how you find its tone, its Rube Goldberg-like death scenes, and its five-layers of plot. Admittedly, there’s a lot going on here, but that’s also part of the fully committed craziness and fun.

What Doesn’t: Claims of white-washing in movies aren’t new, but it seems ones based on Asian source material are practically vulnerable, and you may wonder about some of the casting (or all of it). Strangely enough, LaKeith Stanfield is miscast as a beyond-weird super-detective that is clearly supposed to be Japanese, but this isn’t addressed. Some stretches of the movie do have a slapped-together feel, and the ending isn’t satisfying at all.

What I Would Have Done Differently: I feel that at least some of the negative reviews are mostly responding to the ending, because that truly is the most important part of the ballgame (if you mess that up, it’s what people remember), and so a different ending may have salvaged the movie’s perception.

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