Written by: Charley Parlapanides & Vlas Parlapanides (screenplay), Jeremy Slater (screenplay), Tsugumi Ôba & Takeshi Obata (original manga)
Directed by: Adam Wingard
Starring: Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield, and Willem Dafoe
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"Every human spends the last moments of his life in the shadow of a death god."
Death Note boasts the sort of premise that makes its appeal obvious: what would you do if you possessed a book that granted you the power to kill someone simply by writing down their name and cause of death? With a hook like that, it’s no wonder the original Japanese manga has spawned various adaptations across various media and eventually landed on Hollywood’s radar. After years of development, the project—which rightfully comes loaded with reservations about yet another round of Hollywood whitewashing—fell to Adam Wingard, a director with more than adequate credentials. Films like A Horrible Way to Die, You’re Next, The Guest, and, yes, Blair Witch have established him as a vitally emerging talent in recent years, a distinction that only makes his take on Death Note all the more disappointing. When tasked with capturing the dense lore, Wingard and his screenwriting collaborators haphazardly stuff all of it into 100 minutes, resulting in a film that’s rushed, thematically shallow, tonally muddled, and generally irritating.
Wingard’s distinct style remains intact throughout and is on display immediately during an opening sequence that captures a vaguely sinister, ironically detached high school scene. Without even a line of dialogue, it’s immediately clear that this scene—which is presided over by the usual assortment of meatheads and cheerleaders—is some kind of hell for Light Turner (Nat Wolff), a bleacher outcast who comes into the possession of a mysterious notebook branded with the title Death Note after it quite literally falls out of the sky. Following a dustup with a bully that lands him in detention, he learns the book summons Ryuk (Willem Dafoe), a demonic death god who follows the commands of whoever writes down their darkest wishes.
For the first 20 minutes or so, Death Note feels like a spirited (if not familiar) riff on supernaturally-tinted teenage angst and revenge fantasies. A Faustian Final Destination by way of Heathers, it finds a promising groove as Light exacts gruesome, splattery revenge on both school bullies and the Mafioso goon who killed his mother. Genuinely intriguing, intimate stakes are established by Light’s growing realization of his power: having watched his father (Shea Whigham) toil away as a detective to no avail for years, he suddenly senses a chance to take retribution and restore some sense of justice. When he shares his secret with fellow disaffected teen Mia Sutton (Margaret Qualley), it leads to a macabre relationship built on the shared interest of scanning news reports and playing vigilante. Watching these two navigate the already treacherous waters of high school with this wrinkle introduced has an obvious appeal and feels like enough to sustain an entire movie.
But as their ambitions grow, so too does the film’s, as Death Note begins to sprawl out into something much more epic in scope. Not content to simply scour for local dirtbags, Light and Mia go global, exerting their power to destroy terrorists and entire night clubs full of Yakuza. They sign their carnage, attributing their ghastly work to Kira, a spirit of vengeance that suddenly strikes fear into criminals worldwide. Some—such as Light’s law enforcement dad—balk at someone wielding such power; others hail Kira as a god, leaving the teenage duo to reckon with what they’ve unleashed upon the world. Obvious implications involving power and responsibility emerge, not to mention the existential repercussions engendered by Light and Mia’s reign of godlike terror.
The only problem is all of that stuff more or less remains in the margins for viewers to contemplate on their own since Death Note degenerates into a pulpy procedural. Neither the existential nor moral implications feel as important as the breakneck twists and turns that unfold as Light and Mia spiral out of control, their relationship crumbling in their desperate attempt at self-preservation. Eventually, their exploits capture the attention of L (Lakeith Stanfield), an enigmatic figure who was raised nearly from birth to be a shadowy, almost ninja-like detective. His intrusion on the film is rather jarring: somehow, he comes off as more eccentric and odd than anything else here, including the presence of an actual death demon.
While Stanfield’s performance is in line with the heightened sense of reality here, it’s a bit too highly affected: he hunches over in every scene, his eyes often darting all over the place as he takes an awkward squatting position that’s apparently taken directly from the original manga. Stanfield never quite seems to effuse the confidence that this character requires: where L is presented as almost preternaturally cool, he often appears to be shaken and scared in such a way that undercuts his otherworldly presence. He’s a misfire of a character, albeit one that at least proves to be more interesting than anyone else, save for Dafoe, who recalls his delightfully sinister performance as the Green Goblin here. His Ryuk is a quintessential trickster character, capable of granting Light’s darkest impulses while obviously harboring his own ulterior motives to sew chaos.
Unfortunately, Ryuk utters the film’s most unintentionally ironic line when he insists that humans are “so interesting” as he judges their interplay. I’m not exactly sure how he arrives at that conclusion based off of the characters here, all of whom are uniformly forgettable, if not completely fucking aggravating. This is especially true of Light and Mia, a typical outcast couple who bond simply because they’re both slightly strange, I guess? I mean, her locker even has a “normal people scare me” magnet and everything, so she’s clearly troubled. Likewise, only a total weirdo would adopt an awful, early-00s frosted hairstyle like Light does here, a baffling decision rivaled only by Mia’s decision to show any interest in him. Honestly, I have no idea what either of these two sees in each other, and their relationship—which is meant to form the film’s emotional backbone—feels forced and unnatural, existing mostly as a conduit for the climactic twists and turns.
Once the film has Light and Mia scrambling to one-up and backstab each other, I couldn’t help but hope that both would somehow succeed. Such a turn of events would be fine if the film didn’t obviously want you to see them as tragic figures, what with the overwrought sentimentality and tortured dialogue lamenting how the book has twisted them into awful shades of their former selves. None of that really translates outside of the script’s heavy-handed insistence, though: thanks to bare minimum characterization and unremarkable performances, Light and Mia come across as generally awful throughout Death Note and keep the film from resonating in any meaningful way. By the end, it’s a parade of utter nonsense fumbling to find profundity, apparently unaware of just how goddamn silly it is.
Wingard does what he can to salvage Death Note, often infusing it with a signature assured style highlighted by slick, fluorescent-tinted visuals and atmospheric needledrops. The action scenes are energetic and often exciting, though they’d be even more so in the service of more intriguing characters. At this point, there’s no denying Wingard’s filmmaking chops and considerable talent behind the camera: Death Note and doesn't lack striking visuals. Whenever it slows down, it suffers from dull or distracting performances and a weak, hurried script that proves to be an unconquerable albatross responsible for sinking this adaptation before it can ever set sail.
Death Note is a concept ripe for inventiveness and imagination that this take often lacks: while it feels like it could branch of in many different directions, it wants to dart around and hit all of them in less than 100 minutes in an ill-advised attempt at capturing the entire lore in one shot. Somehow, it manages to go everywhere and nowhere, never once answering for or justifying the decision to transplant this Japanese tale to America, where it becomes a largely forgettable and hollow anthem for doomed youth.
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