I suppose it’s easy to expect a lot from a Death Note movie. After all, with such a killer premise, it’s not difficult to wish for a complicated plot with strong characters and thematic depth. What the American live-action Death Note adaptation has is a simple, but overfilled, plot, uninteresting characters, and a complete waste of its potential themes. It’s like if a child watched the anime and wrote a screenplay based on only its simplest points, handed it to a talented director named Adam Wingard, and then he filmed it without applying any of his own vision to the project.
The story follows a high school student named Light Turner (Nat Wolff) who has hair that makes him impossible to take seriously. For reasons that are never explained and don’t matter, he’s given a book called the “Death Note,” which claims to have the power to kill anyone whose name he writes down within its pages. He’s also visited by Ryuk (voice of Willem Dafoe), a death god who encourages him to use it. So he does. At first, on the school bully, but eventually on “bad guys.”
The majority of the movie after this point is focused on Light playing a cat-and-mouse game with the authorities, who have managed to figure out that it’s not some omnipotent force that’s killing a bunch of serial killers, rapists, etc., but a human. Their investigation is led by L (Lakeith Stanfield), who doesn’t sleep and eats lots of candy. Light also gets a girlfriend, Mia (Margaret Qualley), and together they pick targets and try to stay one step ahead of the authorities.
If that all sounds interesting … it kind of does, doesn’t it? A teenager gets the power to control death—in the form of elaborate, Final Destination-esque murder scenes—and has to do so all while avoiding detection by someone who’s determined to hunt him down, all while a literal death god tries to manipulate him into doing something wrong? That sounds great. Death Note, at least with this iteration, is boring. How do you mess this up?
Death Note is a bad movie that fails because it doesn’t give us, well, much of anything.
Well, the first problem is the pacing, which is breakneck and doesn’t allow time for anything to breathe. While that could have kept us entertained, because everything had to be distilled down to its simplest form to not get overly confusing, it means the movie comes across as a something aimed at young children, at least in terms of thematic and moral depth. We don’t get to think about the consequences of anything, or learn much about the characters and what they think about their actions, because we have to jump to the next thing right away.
As a result, we have characters we don’t care about taking part in an overly simplistic story that gives us very little to think about. It’s not thrilling or emotionally compelling because of the first two points and it’s not intellectually stimulating because of the third. What does the film have going for it? Well, Willem Dafoe is kind of fun as the death god Ryuk, mostly because he’s playing the role as an over-the-top troll. And there’s a lot of unintentional comedy, particularly in all of the death sequences. If they were supposed to be taken seriously, that’s a major failure on the part of the filmmakers. Unlike, for instance, Final Destination, there’s no tension to any of them. They’re just silly.
The ending is also a disappointment. Without spoiling, obviously, Death Note ends on a cliffhanger that (1) wasn’t necessary and (2) feels like it’s going to build to something in this film, but instead is going to have to be tackled in a future, potential, not-at-all-guaranteed future outing. Most of the main stuff is wrapped up, but doing this, especially without a second film confirmed, just feels wrong.
Death Note is a bad movie that fails because it doesn’t give us, well, much of anything. Its pacing is so quick and its story is so simplified to the point that there’s very little to it. Its characters are bland, it doesn’t give any aspect of the production time to breathe or develop, and it avoids thematic depth like it’s something of which to be scared. Outside of a kind of enjoyable Willem Dafoe performance and some unintentional laughter, there’s nothing to be gained from watching Death Note.
Conclusion: Death Note is too simple and too busy to be any good.
Recommendation: Skip Death Note. Watch the anime if you’re interested in the premise; there’s no way it’s worse.