The theme of absolute power eventually leading to corruption isn’t exactly fresh, but Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata managed to examine it through an interesting new lens in Death Note, a manga series originally published weekly in the pages of Shonen Jump. The story of a young man with a supernatural notebook that gives him the power to kill anyone of his choosing spawned a well-received anime adaptation, several live-action films and a series of video games, and an English-language remake has been in the works for nearly a decade.
Unfortunately, director Adam Wingard’s attempt to cram hours of storytelling into a 100-minute feature sacrifices much of the nuance that made the source material such a commodity. Despite an undeniably gorgeous aesthetic full of inky black shadows and the sort of vibrant colors that would elicit a thumbs-up from Guillermo del Toro, not to mention an impressive array of stylistic choices, Wingard’s version of Death Note is a frustrating mess that falls well short of satisfactorily addressing the complicated moral questions at the center of its premise.
Scraping together some extra cash by completing calculus homework for other students and ogling the cheerleading squad during an after-school practice session, the unfortunately named Light Turner (Nat Wolff) is more than a little surprised when an ancient leather-bound journal with the phrase “Death Note” inscribed on its cover drops out of the sky and lands at his feet. Within its pages are a series of rules – we only ever learn a handful, but the most important one is that writing a person’s name in the book will result in their death, which Light puts to the test at the urging of a towering creature who introduces himself as a “death god” named Ryuk (Willem Dafoe).
Scrawling the name of the school bully and watching in fascination as the top half of his skull is sheared off in a Final Destination-like chain of events, Light realizes the immense power in the palm of his hands, and for no apparent reason decides to share his newfound power with Mia (Margaret Qualley), who we immediately recognize as rebellious because she’s smoking a cigarette in slow-motion during the film’s opening. The ability to murder indiscriminately is apparently a major turn-on, and we’re treated to a “falling in love” montage that juxtaposes intense make-out sessions with the extermination of terrorists, crime bosses and Yakuza gangs – all of which Light takes credit for under the pseudonym “Kira.”
With the death count rising, Kira’s ongoing crusade to rid the world of crime attracts the attention of “L” (Lakeith Stanfield), a legendary investigator with a particular knack for solving complex mysteries. The ensuing cat-and-mouse game is one of Death Note‘s best qualities (the same can be said for the source material), and Stanfield commits to his character in spectacular fashion, convincing us of his authenticity even when every new revelation about “L” strains credulity to the absolute limit – seriously, the backstory invented by screenwriters Charley Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides and Jeremy Slater is weapons-grade bonkers, yet somehow Stanfield makes it work.
Regrettably, the same cannot be said for Wolff, who feels out of his depth in several key scenes that require a particular amount of emotional impact that he’s unable to muster – but to be fair, the script doesn’t always give him a lot to work with. Ideally, the character should be heavily conflicted by the ramifications of his actions and the moral quandary he finds himself in, but Wolff plays him as more of an arrogant prick than anything else, which makes it difficult when the film asks us to empathize with him. As for Qualley, she’s perfectly fine in an underwritten role whose arc we can predict almost immediately, and Shea Wigham is effective as Light’s father, a Seattle detective still haunted by the loss of his wife several years earlier.
Death Note may not be as disappointing as other live-action adaptations of Japanese pop culture favorites – it’s certainly better than this year’s Ghost in the Shell – but that doesn’t make it a good film, and even though it’s Wingard’s most accomplished work from a technical standpoint, the whole thing just feels sort of unnecessary. There has yet to be a truly convincing argument for recreating these types of stories with American actors – especially when the original versions are hugely popular here in our country, too – and while admittedly entertaining despite its flaws, Death Note nevertheless fails to justify its existence in any meaningful way.