Death Note suffers from an unsolvable identity crisis.
Director Adam Wingard is caught in a game of tug-of-war, pulled by his obligation to the source material and his desire to not make another simple adaptation. That uncontrollable tugging can be seen in the film’s most bizarre moments where the style of one scene juxtaposes the one before it. Death Note switches back and forth between two different movies without pause, creating a jarring effect that rips you from the film’s world.
Death Note is almost a solid B-movie, but considering that wasn’t Wingard or Netflix’s intention, it makes the entire presentation unfortunate. The cat-and-mouse mystery thriller riddled with enticing dialogue that Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata’s manga was celebrated for doesn’t exist in Wingard’s work. Almost every decision or clue is dumbed down for the audience, but that’s not its worst offense. The characters are nowhere near as intriguing, likable or compelling as Ohba and Obata’s conceptions. Death Note ignores its characters, choosing to put its emphasis on the physical horrors associated with the notebook-that-kills instead of the psychological drama that develops around it.
Death Note is turned into a run-of-the-mill American horror flick, and not a good one. It would be one thing if Death Note managed to accomplish its goal of taking another idea and morphed that into an interesting, aesthetic-driven horror, but that’s not what Death Note does.
Death Note is a lazy, unambitious, forgettable movie that lacks any imagination, heart or entertaining values.
The story follows teenager Light Turner (Nat Wolff) and his girlfriend Mia Sutton (Margaret Qualley) as they use a magical notebook gifted to Light by a death god named Ryuk (Willem Dafoe) to kill criminals around the world. Their vigilante escapade catches the attention of renowned detective L (Lakeith Stanfield), who travels to Seattle to help the local police department, led by Light’s father, crack the case.
It’s when Light and L are in the same city that Death Note loses its shape. Wingard tries to incorporate part of the cat-and-mouse game, but seems bored by the necessity to do so. Any time the mysterious aspects of their relationship are introduced, the focus is switched over to a more arresting visual.
Still, it’s the dialogue, the strength that made the original manga remarkable, that is Death Note’s weakest link. The actors cant’t sell their lines in any kind of convincing manner and everything seems rushed. The characters don’t get to develop because the conversations that need to exist simply don’t.
Another of Death Note’s most boggling facets is the absurd number of tropes that appear in the movie’s 90-minute runtime. From Light being the weird misfit who falls in love with the unhappy, misunderstood cheerleader and has to deal with an absentee, uncommunicative father, to the brilliant detective who’s just a little bit off, Death Note is a film full of clichés.
It crams them into every nook, huffing and puffing to try and ensure none escape. It’s almost impressive just how many clichés Wingard is able to check off the list, all of which culminates with a winter formal dance held in a high school gym, but it’s just another example of the apathy Death Note is soaked in. Stringing together a series of lazy cliches gives the movie some kind of direction to continue moving in, allowing it to approach an untriumhpant and unfulfilling end.
Death Note isn’t just a mediocre movie, but it breaks the cardinal rule of being unentertaining. There are a few, sporadic moments where I found myself laughing, but it was out of second-hand embarrassment more than anything else. Light’s high-pitched scream the first time he encounters Ryuk is a good example. This isn’t a funny scene, but the awkwardness that surrounds Light is difficult to watch without letting a little giggle out.
I wish there was something to love about the movie, but even its best asset, Willem Dafoe’s Ryuk, isn’t used as well as he should be. Ryuk makes a strong appearance, but then is mostly ignored as the movie goes on. Without Ryuk, Light isn’t interesting enough in Wingard’s version of the story to keep everything on track. His relationship with Mia gets tedious and annoying quick, meaning Wingard can’t even rely on their chemistry to turn to if need be.
When Death Note was first announced, I was worried that not being able to watch it in a theater would hinder the experience. Death Note is a big story and, combined with what Wingard was trying to accomplish, seemed like it could have benefited from a big screen and powerful audio system. Instead, what hindered the movie was the film itself and unfortunately nothing can save Death Note from that.