by Ken Bakely
There are stories which are overstuffed to the point of being overwhelming. Death Note does not overwhelm, it pulverizes the senses into oblivion. Had it been shown in theaters, and had it been shown on film, you would almost have expected the celluloid to catch fire in the projector. Adam Wingard, the director, has made some enjoyable films, such as The Guest and You’re Next. Here, he tries too many things – a roaring tidal wave of stylistic and narrative choices – and ends up making an endlessly confusing final product which succeeds only in exhausting the viewer. I want a nap.
A first line of defense for a movie like this will be to claim that the premise is interesting. So what? That doesn’t make the execution worthwhile. “Interesting” doesn’t always translate to “good.” Nuclear warfare is interesting. And so is the idea of this movie, which follows Light Turner (Nat Wolff), an introverted teenager in Seattle. One day, he stumbles upon a small, enchanted journal called the “Death Note.” Controlled by a scheming demon named Ryuk (voice of Willem Dafoe), the book has one purpose: if you write a person’s name in it, they will die within minutes. You can specify the manner of death – anything from a heart attack to decapitation – but once the name is in there, it’s there.
For a while, Light has fun, taking out the school bully, and at the behest of his girlfriend Mia (Margaret Sully), soon upgrades to international fugitives and terrorists. The world is stunned by the hundreds of deaths which rack up, and when the killings are signed with the Japanese name “Kira,” a kind of bizarre religious following begins for this entity. When the police investigation for Kira is headed up by an eccentric, whip-smart detective named L (Lakeith Stanfield), Light realizes he’s in over his head. But he also finds out that the Death Note is more complicated than he first thought, and washing his hands of it will be one difficult task.
The plot of Death Note reveals unlimited potential, and there’s a reason that the Japanese manga it’s based on has had such a big following over the years. Can you imagine how drunk on power you’d be if you had the ability to order anyone’s death at a whim? Now transfer that gift (curse?) to a quiet high school kid, and imagine what kind of stuff he would dream up. The movie you’re visualizing in your head is way more watchable than anything onscreen here.
The movie you’re visualizing in your head probably does not contain scenes in which your main characters a) discuss the Death Note in crowded spaces within earshot of dozens of strangers; b) acknowledge the errors of particular aspects of their actions, and then have them continue on their way; or c) have great epiphanies about what’s going on and what to do next simply because the script requires them to. The movie you’re visualizing in your head probably does not raise legitimate moral questions about the tangibility of playing God for a downtrodden society, and throw them away before answering them because you’ve got another action scene to shoot. The movie you’re visualizing in your head probably does not intriguingly indicate that Ryuk will act autonomously to eliminate Light in one scene, and then relegate him to a background wish-fulfiller in the next, never to raise the proposition again.
Death Note does all these things, and more. There are hypothetical pleasures to each of its phases – from elaborate, Final Destination killings, to the big chase scenes in the third act – but the film switches to something else right when it might have gained its footing. The script is so choppy that it feels like Netflix commissioned an eight-hour miniseries, but the file got corrupted when it was emailed, and four-fifths of every page were lost, leaving only the hint that something else was there.
Wingard has made good movies in the past, and he will make good movies in the future. On paper, his moody and tense aesthetic would make him one of the first filmmakers I would trust with a concept like this. But that’s exactly the problem. We watch as any sense of consistency gets crushed in the melee of concepts, dragging the film frontwards and backwards, into a tasteless mush that you stare at because it makes sounds and lights up.