An intelligent but emotionally wounded teenager with the ability to play god by killing anybody he wants, just by writing their name in a book, is admittedly a compelling idea. The potential for drama packed into the premise alone is worthwhile, not to mention that the boy’s girlfriend is seemingly aroused by his ability to kill, that his father is a reputable cop, and that a secret agency that raises children from infancy to become unstoppable detectives has dispatched their best man to stop him. It’s a lot to digest, especially in just 94 minutes. But, the hopes of the American adaptation of the infamous Japanese manga “Death Note” were put into the hands of Adam Wingard, the rising horror star behind “You’re Next” and “The Guest,” and anxiety eased some. Unfortunately, Wingard’s film is an incoherent mess of tones and styles, confused character motives, and murky narratives. The first name in this Death Note, is the film itself.
Controversially adapted from its original Japanese locale to rainy Seattle (protagonist Light Yagami reimagined as Pacific North Westerner Light Turner), “Death Note” follows the precocious Light (Nat Wolff), whose troubles seem to have started with the death of his mother and essentially concluded with him doing homework for other students for money. Things change quickly, though, and a mysterious book drops from the sky and Light scoops it up without question. Later, after Light is given detention for attempting to stand up to a bully and is punished for his interference, he begins flipping through the strange book and all its confusing rules, and as soon as he chuckles at the absurdity of it all, a giant shadowy demon appears to confirm the truth of the book: write any name in the pages while picturing the person’s face and the person will die.
Again, the concepts writ large in “Death Note” are packed with potential, but the film struggles to ask even the most basic questions of Light or the world he inhabits. A good example: what does it take for a high school student to choose to have a fellow classmate killed? What moral consequences might it have? How might the disassociation of guilt (the fact that Light himself does not do the physical killing) change the way he thinks about writing a name in the book?
Alas, despite bulldozing right over these nuanced themes, “Death Note” continues unperturbed. After impressing his paramour (Margaret Qualley) with his ability to kill bad guys, the two set off on a global rampage, killing war criminals and gangsters alike and leaving messages along the way that create a mythological figure — Kira — that people around the world begin to worship as a god. The deaths, of course, rouse the suspicions of governments and an elite detective L (Lakeith Stanfield), whose name and face are kept secret to avoid Kira’s wrath, begins slowly unraveling the mystery, somehow tracing things back to Seattle. And if this all sounds obtuse and far-fetched, it’s because it is. Mangas are wont to build elaborate, off-kilter worlds, but their translation to the screen is anything but guaranteed (Park Chan-wook’s “Oldboy” is a successful outlier). If anything, Wingard falls prey to excess: he tries to pack everything in, only to wind up with none of it ever becoming fleshed out.
Generally speaking, “Death Note” is an ambitious film full of interesting ideas that is more invested in visual and tonal flair than in capitalizing upon any of the themes it recklessly establishes. Wolff does his part to carry the movie, but the script doesn’t give him much of a personality or anything substantial to wrestle with (despite him being a quasi-calculating murderer and being in a relationship built off of blood-lust). The standout, of sorts, is Stanfield, whose tick-laden performance is strange enough to toe the line Jake Gyllenhaal walked across in “Okja” — somewhere between genius and unbearable.
The real affront though, is the general lack of thought that seems to permeate throughout the film. Not only is much of the plot nonsensical — the climax is nearly hilarious — and the tone so oblivious, but Wingard and co. seem to have no idea of the cultural appropriation they are undertaking. (While it was rewritten to be set in America and star Americans, as Julie Muncy wrote in io9, such adaptations “threatens to erase the cultural particularities of the original work, and it sends the message that the only way to adapt something to an American audience is to make it whiter.”) And it’s this apparent thoughtlessness that’s so frustrating. Because there is a good movie buried in “Death Note.” In the past Wingard has shown himself to be adept at crafting exciting genre fair, the cast is stacked (Willem Dafoe and Shea Whigham round out the support), and the central, morally complex conceit is truly fascinating. But, instead, the “Death Note” we get is unmoored and tedious if you look past the glossy first page. [D+]