Towards the end of Adam Wingard’s adaptation of Death Note, Light Turner (Nat Wolff) cracks open his locker to reveal a “normal people scare me” sticker inside, which about sums the rest of the affair up. Here’s a movie that may as well have been written by a fourteen-year-old boy straight out of their first trip to Hot Topic, blasting My Chemical Romance as they bust out the laptop. It’s a film without an audience, too grotesque for the young and too transparently angst-ridden for the old. Imagine Natural Born Killers edited for the CW and you’re halfway there.
Wolff’s Light is a walking argument for reprimanding your kids, spending his rainy Seattle days thumbing his nose at just about everything. He’s too good to stick to doing his own homework or give his grieving father (Shea Whigham) an ounce of a break for having some standards for his behavior. He embodies the costume of the classical sociopath, making it annoyingly fitting that he receive a magical book that allows him to kill anybody by writing their name in it from a mystical death god named Ryuk (Willem Dafoe). This could give us quite a fascinating morality play if Light had any good in him to begin with. It would be easy to get behind watching him vent repressed fury on the entire world now that he can keep up his facade of virtue. Instead, we’re just watching a bad person get worse, and that wears out its welcome fast.
This only gets worse once we delve into our central relationship. You can actually see Manic Pixie dust flying off of Margaret Qualley’s Mia, who shacks up with Light to become a Bonnie and Clyde for the “dear diary” crowd. One might think that she could perhaps be the moral center that grounds the film, but she’s somehow even less likable. It takes practically no provocation to make this seemingly normal high school girl perfectly fine with mass murder and even less to make her fall in love with her new partner in crime. Wolff and Qualley have absolutely no natural chemistry , making it difficult to delight in their mad love.
Surprising absolutely nobody, Dafoe is a perfect fit to voice a demon who looks like The Green Goblin attending a Marilyn Manson concert. However, Ryuk never progresses beyond “ba ha ha ha” villainy, with any mild callbacks to his fairly engaging origins feeling tertiary at best. The character gets anything out of this is the wildly talented Lakeith Stanfield, playing a cloaked detective named L. Stanfield is magnetic and instantly empathetic, with L’s aggressive commitment to proper justice becoming a refreshing break from the rest of our characters. Unfortunately, the film completely betrays L’s establishment as a methodical hunter when he looses any sense of intelligence by act three, making a series of idiotic and impulsive decisions that do nothing but service the plot.
Wingard has proven himself a deft navigator of this kind of material before with You’re Next and The Guest both sardonically exploring moralities grayer nature. As such, his woefully overbearing hand here is all the more shocking. Insecure about the audience not finding every second of screen time cool, he instead suffocates us with overbearing, stylistic choices. Loud bangs thunder through simple dialogue scenes to keep us awake, obnoxious pop music cues punctuate any moment where anybody shuts up and people are obliterated into pulps liquidly enough to make Quentin Tarantino blush. This feels like something directed by an over eager film student, not a seasoned genre film veteran.
I’m sure it is possible (if not necessary) to create a quality Americanized version of a Japanese property. However, Wingard appears to have internalized American to mean white, and therein lies the problem. This country is currently a powder keg of perspectives regarding social ills, and Wingard is ultimately concerned with that of his star and himself. He’s seemingly afraid to step on any toes, telling us little more about Light’s victims other than them being bullies, criminals or terrorists and that’s not enough to justify telling this story in such a politically charged time. If Wingard had instead angled the film to be a commentary on our uniquely American brand of masculine superiority, he really could’ve had something here. Instead, he just piles on the blood and guts, ironically creating a film without the guts to have anything to say.
Netflix had a huge opportunity to push themselves to the next level with Death Note. This could’ve been the movie that fully proved their claims of fully realizing the properties they take on. Instead, they’ve given us a glorified TV movie, with an out of his element Wingard behind of the wheel of the viewer discretion is advised moments. This isn’t coming from a place of bitterness towards a bad adaptation either as someone whose never read/seen the original Death Note and I wish this had given me any interest in doing so. Brave it if you dare, but by the time it’s over, the only thing you’ll want to write in your Death Note is your Netflix subscription.