From director Adam Wingard, who’s been steadily dipping his talents into the horror genre with his independent ventures in ‘The Guest’ and ‘Blair Witch,’ comes what’s been deemed as a dark fantasy thriller in ‘Death Note.’ While its fantasy elements are surely present, taking influence from the manga of the same name, the thrills never seem to be enough to hook you into Netflix’s latest feature.
When high school outcast Light Turner (Nat Wolff) discovers a mysterious notebook marked “Death Note,” he is suddenly given the ability to instantly make anyone’s death a reality. Visited by the demonic god of death Ryuk (Willem Dafoe) after seeing just what the notebook can do, Light embarks on a seemingly-noble quest to cleanse the world of evil. Sending anyone from low-level criminals to global terrorists to their predetermined fate, Light, along with fellow classmate Mia (Margaret Qualley), become world-famous series killers. It’s only until enigmatic detective L (Lakeith Stanfield) gets on their trail, that Light and Mia’s time playing God is abruptly cut short.
Going into the bold live-action adaptation of the popular manga and anime that is ‘Death Note,’ I approached the film both eager and hesitant at just what the project would be. While the leads in the charming Nat Wolff and the devilish Willem Dafoe surely caught my attention, it was the odd horror-themed premise that left me on the fence, as well as the promise of the new film standing up to the source material. While I might have never been the biggest manga/anime fan, the premise of a book that could spell death for any living soul seemed like an intriguing horror hook for an indie director such as Wingard. Delving into the streaming service of Netflix for a supernatural thriller that would be at best watchable, however, I was treated to a film tripping with potential, and sourly lacking in everything else.
The first major gripe I had with the film was its pacing. While most films today suffer the similar fate of being far too long and losing their audience halfway through, Adam Wingard’s take on ‘Death Note’ never even tried to slow its roll. Packing in a vast amount of exposition from the manga — from the multiple rules of its titular notebook to its thinly-threaded characters — while trying to tell a compelling-enough story in its hour-and-forty-minute runtime, the film zipped through most of its key moments without even expelling a single breath. Giving little life to its characters, beyond their mildly-coherent performances, and quickly becoming predictable, ‘Death Note’ lost most of its potential by leaving a lot on the table for a very short period of time.
One of the more promising aspects of the film had to be its cast. Even as star Nat Wolff hid most of his boyish charisma behind edgy blond hair and a grim persona, the young actor did give a manageable performance as Light Turner. Also caked in shadows and looks of death were Willem Dafoe’s Ryuk and Lakeith Stanfield’s L. Each giving an equally campy yet sinister performance as the demonic face behind the “Death Note” and the skilled operative tasked with destroying it, respectively, both Dafoe and Stanfield managed to make the film seem fun, despite its grim focus and breakneck pace.
Even when a film might suffer as far as its cast and story goes, I can always praise a film if the direction and production stands out. Even though Adam Wingard’s latest in ‘Death Note’ might have lacked the thrills to make it truly effective, Wingard’s unique eye did capture the film’s dark atmosphere in a noticeable way. Even while the film moved swiftly from one Seattle set piece to another, the camerawork and the production design did offer some appeal when the story got lost in itself.
Overall, while it might retain some style and fun with Wingard’s direction and the performances of its cast, ‘Death Note’ ultimately left much to be desired from an adaptation of such a popular anime. While its premise might scream horror, the film was dry of any scares and was left in the dust by its own misguided pacing.
‘Death Note’ is now streaming on Netflix. The Japanese manga of the same name was created by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata. You can also check out the anime series on Netflix.