Oh, Adam Wingard, what are you doing, man? You showed everybody so much promise with your fantastic genre pictures You’re Next and The Guest; two fun and stylish films that are throwbacks to the old films of John Carpenter and the like. Although your last film, Blair Witch, was a completely flatline, I was still eagerly looking forward to what you would do next. I just love your style. Everybody artist has their missteps, and I was hoping that Blair Witch would just be a small blip on a big radar. 

Teenager Light Turner (Nat Wolff) is a high school loner with a strained relationship with his detective father James (Shea Whigham). One day, a mysterious book entitled Death Note falls from the sky and into Light’s possession. Upon reading it, he’s greeted by the demonic god Ryuk (Willem Dafoe), who tells him the Death Note gives whoever wields it the power to murder anybody they want. After testing it out on a sadistic high school bully and receiving successfully bloody results, Light befriends other loner Mia Sutton (Margaret Qualley). Together they use the Death Note as a force for good in the world, killing various criminals and wrongdoers under the name Kira. Unfortunately, vigilantism has its consequences, as eccentric detective L (Lakeith Stanfield) and James work together to find Kira and bring them to justice. 

Before watching this film, I knew absolutely nothing about Death Note, which is a Japanese manga adapted into an anime and many Japanese feature films. I’ve never really had an interest in anime, so I had no attachment to the source material. Now that I got that out of the way and everybody knows I’m an uncultured, Western swine, I can continue with my review: Death Note sucked. I watched this for one reason and one reason only: director Adam Wingard. All of his hallmarks are there: creative camerawork, fantastic lighting that sets the mood of the scene, and a synth-heavy musical score. He certainly keeps the film visually interesting, but unfortunately, it’s the awful script that completely clashes with his style. As much as I love 80’s rock music, the constant use of it here didn’t fit with the overall tone at all. Whenever a scene happened where you heard a synth bass note start popping in, it completely took me out of the film, even making me laugh sometimes. 

There aren’t really any characters in this film, seemingly just blank vessels for us to experience this uneventful story through. Nat Wolff as Light is a total non-starter as our protagonist, hardly displaying any real emotion. He’s so bland that he’s barely even a character before the main events even start, with hardly any backstory beyond, “My mom is dead and my dad doesn’t understand me.” When he gets the book, there’s hardly any build up leading to his first kill. He kind of just does after seeing Mia being bullied and some goading from Ryuk. Then Mia decides to befriend him, and he shows her the book for no reason. For what feels like only a week, they’re already talking about how much they love each other, and it’s never charming. Light and Mia have the chemistry of a nail and chalkboard, with every line of dialogue they said to each other came off as incredibly forced and artificial. I couldn’t help but groan at the consistently cringeworthy dialogue throughout. 

Everything in the story just happens way too fast, and the characters are never given any room to comprehend what’s happening or show the effect it’s having on them. Nearly every character acts like an idiot with underdeveloped and questionable motivations. The only characters who make sense are the law enforcement agents, because their goals are clear cut, but they’re as generic as they come, too. Even the eccentric detective L feel completely lifeless as a character, and this is the guy who squats down in chairs instead of sitting, and constantly eats giant handfuls of candy. There’s just nothing going on with anybody. All of the performances are just terrible, and that’s all because our actors don’t really have anything good to do. The only interesting character is Ryuk, and that’s all because he looks really cool and Willem Defoe was perfect in the role. He was the right mixture of creepy, cunning, and humorous. It’s just a shame he’s so horribly underused, normally just silently creeping in the background. 

Even without knowing anything about the source material, it was obvious that the story was so horribly condensed down into a 90-minute runtime. There’s no breathing room for any characters to develop, learn who they really are, or have any logical motivation. There are numerous rules to the Death Note, and they’re only brought up when convenient to the plot. All of the rules aren’t sufficiently explained, so some even felt rather contradictory. Dialogue only exists as a mean to explain the rules of the world, or explain what’s going on in the plot to move to the next scene. The editing and pacing are terrible, where it felt like the editor didn’t know when to appropriately end scenes, making some of the scene transitions more confusing than anything. Some scenes transition with the character walking off frame with the camera panning over to a different environment, almost like they’re literally rushing to get through this mess. 

I really like the idea behind Death Note; a story about a loser kid who basically gains the power to Final Destination people he doesn’t like. It’s a neat a concept that can be used to explore the morality behind basically having a God-like power and how it can be used. Wingard and the many screenwriters explore those themes, but in all of the most generic and undeveloped ways possible. Since this is an adaptation of previous source material, I’m sure most of it is based from that, but that’s the point of doing an adaptation: to tell the story with your own spin on it. Wingard’s next film is unfortunately another studio led fare, Godzilla vs. King Kong. Let’s just hope that one is decent and he can go back to doing things more within his wheelhouse. I’m not holding my breath, though. 


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