It would be an act of intimidating intellect to detect the point of this extended charade. Death Note is an ugly and depraved movie without a conscious thought in its smug, self-satisfied head. It was somewhere around the time of the hilariously ill-advised cue of a love song, played as the backdrop to the slow-motion death of a primary character, that I realized, through my anger and bafflement, that the song cue reflects the attitude shared by the rest of the movie. Director Adam Wingard and screenwriters Charley Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides, and Jeremy Slater have no interest in exploring the loaded scenario of the premise, only in staging gruesome acts of violence. The tone, though, shifts between deadly sincere and self-reflexively cute, often within the span of a line of dialogue. In other words, it's complete tonal chaos.
Based on the acclaimed manga (by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata) that inspired a short-lived anime series and a subsequent trilogy of movies in Japan, the film cuts to the chase almost immediately. High-school loner Light (Nat Wolff) stumbles upon a notebook called the "Death Note," in which he is given the opportunity to write the name of an enemy and how he wishes that enemy to die. The first victim is a harmless school bully whose head is bisected by a ladder following the Rube Goldberg-esque contraption thought up by the forces powering the notebook (namely Ryuk, a spiky-haired demon, voiced by Willem Dafoe, that is either ally or enemy depending on the whims of a screenplay that has nothing useful to do with him). That might be what constitutes a spoiler, but it's the joy that Wingard seems to find in staging this death that is most telling.
It's also the attitude toward Light as a misunderstood antihero, because very clearly and decisively, this is a sociopath turned on by bloody murder who gets his pleasure from the knowledge that the "right" thing is exacting vengeance upon the criminals of the world. Perhaps this conceit works on the pages of the manga or over the course of a television saga, but in 100 concise minutes, which end on a note of horrifying uncertainty for all involved, this conceit is unnecessarily cruel and completely meaningless. As if it wasn't enough to convince the viewer, the screenplay pairs Light with Mia (Margaret Qualley), who has an even deeper well of horny bloodlust from which to suit her mass-murder fancy.
These two rack up a body count that nears half a thousand people before L (Lakeith Stanfield), a sweets-consuming detective of preternatural (and mostly ludicrous) skill, detects that Light and Mia, working under the moniker "Kira," are perpetrating mass acts of terrorist vengeance against wrongdoers. This is a movie that stumbles through, over, and under mountains of information, a lot of which is crucial to understand anything that happens in the second half. L infiltrates the investigation being led by Light's dad (played by Shea Whigham), with whom Light has a tumultuous relationship following the senseless murder of the wife/mother in the family.
The investigation moves so quickly through so many pieces of information that it's essentially impossible to keep track of any of its parts, which means that the main appeal of the film - to see the gruesome and violent results of Light and Mia's exacting of vengeance - is rendered completely meaningless and grossly exploitative. The stakes are lost amid ineffectual storytelling, a performance from Wolff that suggests the actor is bored by the material (He responds by introducing unwelcome humor into the role, both intentionally and, in the case of the moments of being frightened or desperate, unintentionally), and filmmaking that showcases a lot of Dutch angles and nothing approaching clarity of vision. Death Note has its final say with a scene leading into the credits that bulldozes through all good taste to ambush its audience into empathizing with a psychopath, and that it isn't surprising the film takes the high road speaks volumes.
Nat Wolff (Light Turner), Lakeith Stanfield (L), Margaret Qualley (Mia Sutton), Shea Whigham (James Turner), Michael Shamus Wiles (Russel), Paul Nakauchi (Watari). Featuring the voice of Willem Dafoe (Ryuk).
Directed by Adam Wingard and written by Charley Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides, and Jeremy Slater, based on the manga by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata.
No MPAA rating.
Released on Netflix and in select cities on August 25, 2017.