“Death Note” is a 2017 live action Netflix adaptation of a manga and animated series of the same name, and is an excellent example of a story in which the “hero” and the “protagonist” are not one and the same.
The premise of the film is of a boy named Light (Nat Wolff), who obtains a magic notebook with the power to end the life of anyone whose name is written within its pages. After meeting with a god of death named Ryuk (Willem Dafoe), Light takes it upon himself to “cleanse” the world of criminals by systematically writing the names of various lawbreakers in the notebook. He is soon challenged by an elusive detective known only as L (Lakeith Stanfield).
The central conflict of the film is provided by the clash of ideologies between Light and L, primarily in their respective conceptions of justice. Light sees using the notebook as a way of making the world a better place and sees the fall in global crime rates that he causes as validation that what he is doing is just and perhaps even necessary. He focuses on the ends while viewing the means with which he gets there simply as a necessity, showing his skewed moral compass.
Ryuk serves as a catalyst for Light’s actions, being the one that brought the notebook to Light, teaching him how to use it, and urging him to try it out, while also warning that he could always find another owner of the book. This is contrasted by L, who sees the string of murders as just as egregious as the other serial killings that he has investigated before. L sees the future in a broader sense and focuses not only on the outcome of actions, but the morality of the actions as well.
The composition of scenes in respects of cinematography, blocking, and practical effects is excellent, giving scenes layers of meaning that stand up to multiple screenings. One excellent example of this is the dinner scene towards the beginning of the film, which combines tight camera angles, a detailed set, and the symbolism of the apple of temptation standing in for the notebook to great effect. “Death Note” is well directed and well shot, but the issues arrive in the writing.
The film explores the question of the meaning of justice to intrigue the viewer, but unfortunately it can feel rushed at times. In addition, tone shifts as well, going from goofy to deathly serious at the drop of a hat in some scenes. All of this is compounded by the runtime, which is too short to tell the story.
In this area, the animated series has an advantage, given that there were two seasons with which to examine the characters, their thought processes, and tension of scenarios.
Given more time and focus on the writing and characters, this movie could have been stronger, but the film’s merits still shine through. As it stands, the film is good, but falls short of greatness.
3 out of 5 stars