Released by Netflix
Review by Adam Mast
What if you had the power to be jury, judge, and executioner right at your finger tips, 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 Japanese Manga series 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 (Nat 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 new found 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 super hero 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. His creepy Ryuk is well designed, too! The rest of the cast, particularly Stanfield, is let down by a truncated script.
DEATH NOTE was directed with youthful exuberance by genre-fan Adam Wingard, a filmmaker 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 the 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 (granted 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 miniseries, it might have made a world of difference. As it stands though, the messy DEATH NOTE feels like it’s over before it’s even begun. It isn’t a total train wreck, but ultimately, it feels like a faint glimpse at what could have been.