While few fans of Japanese animation would consider Death Note a standard-bearer of the form, its bizarre, hyper-violent appeal has been undeniable to audiences there and abroad for years now. Beneath the show’s almost comically gothic presentation was an unsettling question: if you were given a book by a shinigami that granted you virtual omnipotence, in the form of the ability to kill anybody whose name was written in it, in just about any manner in which you can imagine a person’s death, would you? Or, as the show often argued, wouldn’t you?
Adam Wingard’s live-action adaptation for Netflix isn’t nearly so concerned with the dubious morality of either of those questions. To be sure, it feigns its interest in both, but Wingard’s film ultimately answers them with a resounding “well, fuck yeah, as long as you can write some Final Destination traps into the mix.” Death Note ends up being just about the worst imaginable interpretation of its premise, the story of a quiet, bullied teenager who decides to play deity, the shinigami who passive-aggressively menaces him while he does it, and the attractive cheerleader who fans the flames of madness all the while. In making the film’s protagonist a wayward hero with a moral compass, the film loses virtually everything that made the concept engaging, for its faults and suspect power apologetics. It becomes the story of a bullied kid becoming the ultimate bully, and the film is far uglier for it.
Light Turner (Nat Wolff) is the consummate movie interpretation of a social outcast. Gently handsome, with impeccable blonde highlights, Light shuffles his way through his days, friendless and prone to assaults from the alpha males of the school. (If this weren’t abundantly clear from the first moments onward, Wingard helpfully introduces him as he’s watching football players and cheerleaders make their afternoon rounds while he sulks on the bleachers nearby.) But then a book falls from the sky, a suspicious text full of rules and names scrawled in a host of different hands. It reads “Death Note,” and soon Light is accosted in a classroom by Ryuk (Willem Dafoe, the voice of a monstrous CG creation), a bored and ancient god of death who breaks down the rules for Light. He can kill anybody he wants just by writing their name, and once the deed is done, it’s done for good.
Soon Light’s killing spree has begun, from a school bully to military dictators. He finds himself ducking the attentions of his high-ranking police officer father James (Shea Whigham) as he begins to draw those of Mia (Margaret Qualley), the aforementioned cheerleader, whose fierce attraction to Light and his newfound power slowly begins to curdle into a sociopathic streak of her own. All the while, as the bodies continue to pile up (predominantly offscreen), Light begins to draw the attention of L (Lakeith Stanfield), an eccentric master detective who quickly susses out that Light’s chosen nom de plume of “Kira” is just an ethnocentric misdirect designed to send authorities anywhere but Seattle, where all the violence began.
Light’s attempts to pawn off suspicion on some poor stranger in another country are just the first of Death Note’s wrongheaded narrative decisions throughout. Then again, the film is so lazily non-specific in its storytelling that even accusations of whitewashing seem like more engagement than it deserves, even as the film retains the mythos of the shinigami for stylistic effect and nothing more. While Dafoe’s onscreen avatar is an impressive creation, Wingard makes the questionable decision to bathe him in partial to complete shadow during the majority of his appearances, a shame given the eerie character design of Ryuk’s pallid face and blaze-orange eyes. A better film might find a campy sense of fun in the actor purring his way through lines like “Humans are soooooo interesting,” but he’s essentially reduced to set dressing after a time, in order for the film to explore its chief interest: the fusion of a tedious police procedural with, for some reason, an ‘80s coming-of-age teen drama.
In a sense, “some reason” is that Wingard is at the helm, who previously toyed with the film’s neon-bathed aesthetics with The Guest, a far more interesting riff on genre standards. Here, though, the anachronistic music cues (Berlin, INXS, a synth-heavy score) are likewise just flourishes intended to enliven a stiff, by-the-book story with some nasty ethical underpinnings. While Wingard imbues the film with occasional sparks of style, it’s always in the service of an endless slog through walk-and-talks, a grisly death scene here and there, and some more of Light’s endless opining about how “we’re not the good guys anymore.” To say that the film never makes anything of its stylized bent or its dramatic questions is an understatement; Death Note carries a weirdly perfunctory air about itself throughout, even as the bodies begin to fall closer and closer to its main duo.
That duo hardly enlivens the material in their own right. Wolff and Qualley have both done solid work elsewhere, but here both actors come off as near-lifeless castoffs from a Freeform melodrama. Neither Light nor Mia are likable enough to be engaging on their own, and since screenwriters Charley and Vlas Parlapanides and Jeremy Slater don’t seem to consider them antiheroes, it leaves them in a dulling limbo from which neither the actors’ mutual charisma nor any onscreen chemistry can escape. Whigham is saddled with equally thankless material as an ace cop who also proves remarkably poor at his job from start to finish, the loose logic of “but it’s his son!” substituting for any kind of a dramatic arc. Only Stanfield manages to enliven his portions of the film; L is essentially just an assemblage of holdover quirks from the original series, but the rising star finds a sense of darkly comic play in his know-it-all ability to see right through every possible scenario and straight to the finish. When he jovially confronts Light in a diner, the disparity between the two performances and characters is so stark that Stanfield virtually threatens to burst forth from the screen.
This sort of magnetism is scarcely visible at any other point throughout Death Note. From its boilerplate manhunt cliches to an ending that doesn’t so much conclude the film as bring it to an abrupt and grinding halt, with a series of increasingly aggravating and nonsensical “gotcha!” flashbacks along the way for flavor, the film never settles on any one motif or approach. It’s a high school movie, except when it forgets about that for prolonged stretches. It’s a play on the idea of power as all-corrupting that instead celebrates those abuses, and relegates them to the behavior of wayward heroes. It’s a quarter-assed thrill-killer romance with an unpleasant streak of misogyny lurking in the nearby shadows, just behind that barely visible demon. In adapting Death Note for a presumably American audience, Wingard loses the whole of its identity, and never finds a different one with which to replace it.