Director: Adam Wingard.
Cast: Nat Wolff, Margaret Qualley, Shea Whigham, Lakeith Stanfied,, and the voice of Willem Dafoe.
Just imagine. A book entitled Death Note falls from the sky and lands right by your feet. With this book, you have the power of life and death. All you have to do is write down a person’s name in the book, get a clear picture of them in your mind, write down how they’re going to die, and it will be so. What would you do if such a book came into your possession? Would you use it? How would you justify your decision if you did? And what would be the personal cost of wielding its power?
The premise to the Netflix movie Death Note is an unquestionably fascinating one. It’s based on a Japanese manga series written by Tsugumi Ohba, which I have never read. The manga series went on for 12 volumes, and even inspired an anime series as well as a trilogy of movies in Japan. That’s enough time to explore the many intriguing ideas and implications with the premise. Maybe filmmaker Adam Wingard could have made an idea-rich and thoughtful movie in 100 minutes based on that idea. Unfortunately, he badly misfires by focusing his story on two of the most loathsome and disturbing characters in recent memory.
They would be Seattle-based high school students Light Turner (Nat Wolff) and Mia Sutton (Margaret Qualley, Andie McDowell’s daughter). Light comes to possess the book after it falls from the sky during a particularly strong storm at his school. The next day, while in detention, he’s approached by the dark, glowing-eyed, heavily-spiked, apple-chomping death god named Ryuk (voiced by Willem Dafoe), the creator of the book. He tells Light the power the book holds, and encourages him to use it.
How does Light respond? By writing down the school bully's name into the book and saying that he should be decapitated. You could argue that Light didn’t really think anything would happen (he does scream once the bully is killed), but once the deed is done, he continues using it without hesitation. First, he targets the man who got away with killing his mother in a traffic accident, and then he starts targeting terrorist organizations.
I know what you’re thinking: Why is targeting terrorists groups such a bad thing? Wouldn’t you use the book’s power to rid the world of evil? A discussion could follow about the pros and cons of using the book, but it’s not one the movie is interested in having. Instead, Light immediately opens up to the cigarette smoking cheerleader Mia (who turns out to be crazier than him) about the powers of the book. They fall in love almost immediately (there's not an ounce of chemistry there), and we’re treated to a montage of these two having sex while searching the web to decide which evil bastard they should write into the book next. Eventually, he starts taking credit for the murders under the guise of a god named Kira, and people start to worship him, writing “Kira saves” on city buildings and churches.
There’s a disturbing blood lust present within these characters that makes it impossible to like them. Consider the scene where Mia says that she wishes she could have seen the bully get decapitated. Consider the other people who are written into the book, including law enforcement officials whose only crime is that they’ve been tasked with stopping Kira. Consider the look Light has on his face when he asks his father (Shea Whigham), a local detective, the identity of the masked man known as L (Lakeith Stanfield) after L states in a televised speech that he will not rest until Kira is stopped. He’s not a misunderstood antihero, but rather a disturbed sociopath, and what’s sick about the movie is that it asks us to see him more as the former than the latter.
Now about that character L. He’s a super-intelligent, candy chomping detective with such preternatural deductive skills that not even the movie knows how he’s able to figure out the things he does. If you think the movie will show you how he was able to deduce that Light is actually Kira, think again. I don’t know how he did it, and I don’t think the filmmakers do either. To his credit, Stanfield’s performance is terrific, and I would argue that he turns in the best performance in the film, be it human or otherwise. But there’s only so much a good actor can do with such a lame and underdeveloped character.
Then, there’s Ryuk. Dafoe certainly has the right sinister voice for the character, but the movie never really does anything with him. He’s not in the movie for very long, and when he is, all he does is laugh menacingly, taunt Light, and eat apples. He’s not very scary, and given that he just does the same thing over and over, he gets to be pretty boring after a while.
Director Adam Wingard is not an untalented filmmaker (I did love 2014’s The Guest), but he’s not one that I’m terribly fond of either. Many of his movies are very gory (Death Note is no exception), and while I have no problem with gory films, the problem with Wingard’s work is that he seems to take an almost sadistic pleasure with the violence, and his movies are very unpleasant as a result. That’s what butchered his ghastly and overrated You’re Next, and it’s what hurts his film here.
Death Note is an ugly and off-putting film, filled with characters that are either boring or despicable, and a premise that’s filled with opportunities which are left frustratingly unexplored. One thing I want to know is this: What happens when someone burns the book? Does that put an end to its power? And why doesn’t Light think about doing this once things start spiraling out of control?
Also, we learn that with the book's power, you have the power to control people's minds. With that being said, what was up with what Light wrote in the book at the end which led to the scene involving a crumbling Ferris wheel? Without giving anything away, was he really so stupid as to think that that was the only option open to him? Ah, who cares! Death Note is one of the worst movies of 2017.
Final Grade: ½ * (out of ****)
Not Rated, but would definitely be an R for bloody violence, disturbing images, strong language, some sexual content.