It’s really really tough to approach Death Note with an open mind, though I try, and I don’t mean it in the same way everybody else does. Much as I am indeed a fan of the original manga and anime series revolving around the notebook that can kill any person whose name is entered on it, it is simply as a casual one and I was more than open to a new take of the story. But I’ve never really been fond of Adam Wingard’s style of horror (of which Death Note is only cursorily such) and while I’m interested in what he could do without his partner-in-crime Simon Barrett at the pen, teaming him with Jeremy Slater – writer of the disastrous Lazarus Effect – is something I’d imagine to be an even worse scenario than Wingard/Barrett. And the result feels emblematic of the problems I have with both authors.
Slater’s is easier to identify, the guy has such an impatient want to do everything possible at once with a story that he can’t actually recognize his limitations or streamline them into a singular narrative. To be fair, this is one of my biggest problems with the original Death Note source but this adaptation is much more concentrated being in 101 minute form and so it stares at me in the face harder. The movie will glance for two seconds at infamous serial killer “Kira”‘s cult-like following and then forget about it for an hour. Or leap a whole step in developing the relationship between Light Turner (Nat Wolff, a grievous Achilles heel for the part) and Mia (Margaret Qualley) enough that we could buy it as anything more than puppy love that stemmed out of their involvement in the “Kira” murders and vigilante justice partaken by Light’s Death Note. There’s an even bigger leap with the animosity between Light and detective L (Keith Stanfield) as L confronts Light with nothing more than circumstantial evidence despite the movie insisting he’s smarter than that.
The biggest sign of Slater’s inability to make a decision on what he wants Death Note to be is the fact that it starts off feeling like it’s ready to turn into an irreverent gore-a-thon at the first death, a messy decapitation, and the few following after, but suddenly (and you can pinpoint exactly when the moment is because it fades to black right before) wants to be a seriously cliched mystery thriller of wits between two characters where Light is simply not compelling enough to make it an interesting fight (L on the other hand has moments that seem like a whiplash of logic on paper but Stanfield valiantly makes them work as much as possible – there’s only two scenes where I think he fails).
Making it even less interesting is Wingard’s unfortunate inability to treat the material with anything more than an attitude that “this is a ridiculous premise so we’ll just make it all seem dumb”. His continued insistence on treating his films with a detached sense of irony (as is the case in You’re Next and The Guest) only leaves me as a viewer with a frustrated lack of obligation to give a shit about Light’s struggle to stay ahead of the investigation running after him and Mia, headed by his father (Shea Whigham, the only other good presence in this movie besides Stanfield, this time by embodying his own arc about a father desperately trying to keep his son in his life). I don’t think it’s an accident on his part to focus more on Light/Mia than Light/L and make the former relationship so absolutely unbelievable in its lack of chemistry or sincerity to do anything more than make a punchline of its extremely contrived and conventional third act, but it is a big mistake that invalidates the hour and a half I spent watching. The glibness might have been tolerable early on when full of splashy gore effects for every sudden death, but at its climax, the movie ends up infuriating.
Let alone how much of the movie feels like Wingard is ashamed of his work, what with the matter of having Ryuk (motion-captured by Jason Liles; voiced by a disappointingly neutral Willem Dafoe), the Shinigami Death God attached to Light’s Death Note, be forced into a corner as much as they can to cover up the effects work and having almost no involvement in the plot proper except to be a red herring. And then there’s still the matter that this is aesthetically one of the least interesting things Wingard ever made. Despite a nostalgic light opening montage and a wonderfully gruesome middle aftermath setpiece, almost everything else in the high school scenes is shot flatly beyond arbitrary Dutch angles. It’s ridiculously boring to look at otherwise and the most only other inspired moments in the film aesthetically are retreads of better scenes in Wingard’s filmography (the climaxes of The Guest and Blair Witch, both I’d daresay the only great moments in his career and both better movies than Death Note). The only time it gets to feel like it has personality is with needle drops that undercut the moment so abruptly it just reminds me of Wingard in the studio, giggling “this is such a dumb story”.
It may be a dumb story, but you made it. You directed it. You made decisions that establish its lead character as a totally idiotic fool and took it in terrible creative directions when there were obviously better paths to take. Being surprised that Death Note is being ripped apart for a movie where it feels like the director didn’t care whether it was good or bad is like being surprised when you drop dead after writing your name in the Death Note.