Based on the original Japanse manga written by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, I thought the live action Death Note was going to be a sure thing. A bright high school kid receives a mysterious book that offers the owner the power to have anyone killed by simply writing their name in the book. There are plenty of rules, but as long as the owner of the book knows the name of the intended victim, can picture their face when the name is added to the book, and the death is actually possible, then they’re as good as dead. Light (Nat Wolff) does what any high school nerd would be tempted to do, he unleashes Hell upon the cliche high school bully. Impressed and disgusted with the results, he decides to use the book in a more inspired way.
Light isn’t alone in this; a Shinigami, a Japanese death demon named Ryuk (voiced by Willem Dafoe) manifests to guide and educate him along the way. Ryuk is a great character who lives in a perfect world of practical and digital effects. Shrouded in mystery, both in origin and motivations, Ryuk suffers from the Darth Maul Syndrome. He’s the best part of the film and gets the least screen time. While I wasn’t satisfied with his screen time or properly fleshed out character, Dafoe’s creepy and charismatic voice is perfect for Kyuk. I would have, however, loved to have seen Ryuk more in line with his complex manga character where he is fascinated with the ever-evolving and flexible human ethic in motion. This just serves to show the problem of condensing the rich source material into a feature-length film.
Light is immediately tested as he begins to play God, killing criminals and other dregs of society that he judges worthy of death. Death Note immediately jumps the shark when Light shares the book with his high school crush, Mia (Margaret Qualley), just because he has the hots for her. The manga doesn’t feature a love interest for Light and this feels forced, a clear sign to me that the creators couldn’t empower Light to work on his own anti-hero merit. The two cook up a clever and inspired global killing spree, one that quickly introduces a deeply uninspired game of cat and mouse that isn’t even worthy of a made-for-TV movie.
When most wanted criminals start dropping dead across the globe, both the public and law enforcement begin to notice the involvement of “Kira,” the godlike name given to the killer seemingly responsible for the deaths. As the body count grows, so does the interest of the allusive and mysterious, “L.,” an independent detective who is competently able to track Kira back to Seattle and forces Light into the mix. L is exuberantly portrayed by actor Lakeith Stanfield, who brings the character to life in ways the other characters are not. Perhaps the worse portrayal is that of James Turner (Shea Whigham), Light’s cop father who is still way off from being elevated to paper-thin.
The dialogue is terrible and amateurish, often making these stereotypical characters that much worse. Death Note is a hot mess, and the characters suffer for it. Not even reluctant horror director, Adam Wingard, can help this film. Wingard has obvious talents and really got my attention with films like A Horrible Way to Die and You’re Next. I give him credit for the first 30 minutes of the film; I really did like his tone and look. Between the juggling of the complex source material and the inability to sell Light as a true anti-hero, even Wingard ultimately fails.
Death Note is rushed, poorly constructed, and never rises to the level it should. Netflix, you can do better.
GEEK Grade: D+