(NOTE: While I am quite familiar with the Death Note manga, the anime, and previous film adaptations, I am not going to compare this recent adaptation to those. Yes, it’s an Americanized version for an Americanized audience, and such things are generally problematic. For the sake of avoiding the same tired arguments about adaptation, I’m going to discuss Death Note 2017 completely apart from any of its source material).
In Quentin Tarantino’s 2015 film, The Hateful Eight, Tim Roth’s character shares a monologue where he expresses the ideas of what a civilized society calls “justice” and the notion of “frontier justice.” The latter form of justice refers to the idea of vigilantes and lynch mobs which, he says “is apt to be wrong.” This is a sentiment that many people can agree with; we’ve abhorred the idea of a lynch mob operating with its own agenda and we see that kind of vigilantism as detrimental to society. When we see stories on the news of people killed or assaulted by groups with their own political agendas and their own ideas of justice, we don’t root for the lynch mob.
The problem with Netflix’s 2017 adaptation of Death Note is that it expects us to root for the lynch mob.
When we are first introduced to the teenage protagonist, Light Turner, we meet a selfish boy with his own concept of justice. He makes money by doing other students’ homework. When he is confronted by school authorities for cheating, his defense is to point out greater wrongs at the school, such as bullies. The school states that this incident of academic dishonesty is just another instance of his behavioral problems. We learn that his mother was murdered and that her killer was found not guilty at trial. Light resents his father for not taking justice into his own hands to eliminate that criminal. Light Turner, in other words, is the mentality of the lynch mob. With his selfish idea that “justice is what I want, not what society thinks,” he is not a hero. The protagonist we are supposed to cheer for has no redeemable qualities. Regardless of any morality, Death Note fails to provide any interesting character worth caring about.
Light discovers the eponymous death note, a notebook that allows him to kill anyone simply by writing down their name and imagining their face. It’s connected to a death god named Ryuk, who explains to Light all the details of this magical device. He uses it to kill a school bully and then, later, to kill the man who murdered his mother. Almost immediately, he selfishly reveals this power to Mia, a girl at school that he has a crush on. He knows that she’s something of a sociopath, but is eager to impress the girl he likes. Light shows the audience early on that by willing to kill in order to get a girl to like him, his notions of justice are apt to be wrong. Together, Light and Mia become “Kira,” a sort of God that deals justice by wantonly slaughtering criminals. The montage of these massacres includes plenty of shots of Light and Mia laughing and sharing romantically intimate moments.
Death Note does make attempts to create a theme out of questioning the differences between legal justice and vigilantism. Light’s father, for instance, is assigned to be the head detective investigating the mysterious Kira because of how strongly he feels against Kira’s form of ‘justice.’ While Death Note is full of weak, cliched, and poorly written characters, the role of James Turner is one that shows even a modicum of depth and personality. It’s a shame the movie didn’t focus more on him and his ideals. He would have provided a better counter-balance to Light.
Light is able to maintain his position as the film’s hero by introducing characters that are more morally corrupt. While Light believes himself to be justified in murdering people because of their crimes, his girlfriend and conspirator Mia is not above killing the innocent in order to secure her power. Mia is painted as a villain simply because she’s not as bad as Light. However, that shouldn’t forgive Light for his own actions. Recall the scene early in the movie where Light tries to defend cheating in school by pointing out greater injustices. His lazy “but they are worse than me,” did not prevent Light from facing the consequences of his own crime. The remainder of the film, however, does forgive Light by pointing out that there are people worse than him. Death Note has us root for the lynch mob by telling us that there are worse lynch mobs out there.
What is the problem with this? After the events following the politically charged protests in Charlottesville that resulted in the death of one woman and the injury of many others, President Donald Trump stated, infamously, that there was “blame on both sides.” This created a firestorm of controversy and debate as people demanded that Trump specifically condemn one side. People were willing to acknowledge that violence has happened on both sides, but were willing to forgive one because the other side was worse. This rhetoric continues at too many violent protests still, as either political group (or ‘lynch mob’ if you will) shares the idea that their crimes are acceptable because the other side is worse. It’s that same idea of “frontier justice” which is often apt to be wrong—it’s a form of vigilantism that counters the ideas of justice in a civilized society.
This is exact dramatic structure of Death Note in creating Light as the film’s hero. He commits grievous crimes, murders hundreds of people, but believes that he is doing the right thing. The film supports this by showing that those against him were worse. Even the enigmatic detective L, the genius who tracked him down, becomes villainous as he recklessly pursues Light with the sole purpose of killing him, breaking his own moral code. There is no catharsis, there is no underlying idea that, perhaps, Light was wrong too. He is not a tragic figure as he never faces downfall as a result of a tragic flaw in his character. He is, in fact, presented as morally superior to every character in the film. Every murder he commits, even out of necessity, is forgiven by showing that the victim was more morally corrupt than Light.
The film’s easy forgiveness of heinous crimes is certainly not it’s only flaw. There are some terrible music choices as climactic scenes and montages are paired with 80s love ballads by Chicago or Air Supply. The film’s pacing is all over-the-place as it characters either over-react to situations or don’t react enough without any consistency. Practically every scene is dark and muddy with an unmotivating color pallet of blue and darker blue. There are some decent things, such as Willem Dafoe voicing Ryuk, but these are so quickly buried under a messy and morally repugnant film.
Ultimately, it is Ryuk, the actual God of Death who carries out every murder in this movie, that becomes the only positive character. In the final scene he simply says “You humans are so interesting,” and he’s correct. Ryuk carries out the actions of humanity without question, though he does provide commentary. He enjoys watching humanity tear itself apart with its own ideology. Of course he is constantly portrayed as a villain, Ryuk is the majority of Americans as they watch a nation tear itself apart with conflicting ideologies, helpless to stop them and only capable of making a joke or two about it.