Movie Review: “Death Note” (R)
What if you had the power to be jury, judge, and executioner right at your fingertips, and nobody else in the world knew you had that power? Would you use that power, or would you put it to the side? This is the primary theme at the heart of the new film, “Death Note.” If only this movie would have stuck to that single provocative theme. Instead, it throws other stuff into the mix. A lot of stuff. Too much stuff.
It should be noted that this Netflix film is based on the popular anime of the same name, and it crams in as much of the dense source material as it possibly can. At the heart of the movie is Light Turner (Natt Wolff), a picked-on teenager who spends his days keeping to himself and attempting to maintain what little of a relationship he has left with his recently widowed father (Shea Whigham). Light’s life drastically changes, however, when he comes into possession of a mysterious book which, through the aid of a mischievous death god called Ryuk (voiced by Willem Dafoe), grants him the power to execute any individual of his choosing in any way he sees fit without being directly involved. With this newfound power comes a new girlfriend (Margaret Qualley), a strengthening in his relationship with his father, and a run-in with a genius detective who goes by the alias “L” (Lakeith Stanfield).
“Death Note” feels like a 10-hour movie condensed into 100 minutes. This is to say that the proceedings feel overstuffed and underdeveloped. And that’s a shame because there are entertaining moments here, particularly in first 45 minutes. It has a bit of a superhero vibe, and the moral dilemma at play is an interesting one.
As for the cast, it’s lively, giggly Dafoe who has the most fun as a death god with a wicked sense of humor. The rest of the cast, particularly Stanfield, are let down by a truncated script.
“Death Note” was directed with youthful exuberance by genre-fan Adam Wingard, a filmmaker who I must confess is very hit-and-miss for me. Of his work, “The Guest” is my favorite by quite a large margin. How does “Death Note” measure up? Well, it’s a far cry from his best, but it’s certainly not his worst (I’d give that honor to “Blair Witch”).
Wingard’s latest offers up a lot of ’80s-inspired tunes (some of them work and some of them don’t) and a synth-heavy score that plays like a bit of a John Carpenter B-side. Beyond that, a great deal of “Death Note” is punctuated by a beautiful blue tint, the movie is briskly paced, and the majority of the kills — which are a little reminiscent of the deaths in the “Final Destination” series but not quite as over-the-top — are grisly and pretty darn creative.
Again though, this flick always feels like it’s in such a damn hurry to get to the finish line. No patience at all. Furthermore, “Death Note” is plagued by many a cheesy moment. It should also be noted that the makers of “Die Hard” should be paid royalties for this film’s big ferris wheel climax.
All of that said, had Wingard done this as a Netflix mini-series, it might have made a world of difference. As it stands, though, the messy “Death Note” feels like it’s over before it has even begun. It isn’t a total train wreck, but ultimately, it feels like a faint glimpse at what could have been.