Netflix is starting to feel itself in the realm of moviemaking. Long established as one of the 21st century’s major providers for serialized storytelling, the streaming giant had a number of wonderful little-seen films like Beasts of No Nation and Barry that preceded its first bonafide hit, this summer’s enchanting Okja. So I wish I could say that Death Note is continuing the tradition of building a new home for more adventurous and multicultural cinema. Yet for all of its visual and creative imagination, Adam Wingard’s adaptation of the Death Note manga by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata is a narrative clutter, every bit as impenetrable as a stack of manga scattered across a teenager’s bedroom floor.
A would-be melting pot of Western and Eastern storytelling sensibilities, and horror and heightened gothic melodrama, Death Note attempts to have everything in its chaotic blend. But the elements come together about as well as oil and water, and the resulting picture is stuffed with the ingredients for fleeting macabre fun, but as a whole it is more of a curiosity for viewers trying to discern just what exactly they’re looking at, including Willem Dafoe as the shadowy, demonic version of the BFG… which admittedly lands in the “fun” column.
Set in Seattle, Death Note follows Light Turner (Nat Wolff), a disaffected and maybe callow youth. It’s honestly hard to get a good read on Light, but suffice to say that he is upset that his father (Shea Whigham) is a police officer who has passively allowed a big shot who drunkenly plowed a car into his wife and Light’s mother to get away with manslaughter. Luckily for Light, he just so happens to stumble one day after school onto the “Death Note,” an old timey notebook filled with dozens of rules but a single purpose: you write someone’s name in it and they die. You can even choose how they are killed.
The facilitator of these fatalities turns out to be the weirdest and best part of the movie, a demon/god of death called Ryuk (voiced and partially motion-captured by the invaluable Dafoe). Ryuk is the movie’s ace, an evil force that is strangely playful and childlike in his desire to inflict murder and mayhem on as many people as possible. And Light is only too happy to help him, first by getting revenge, and then going on an international killing spree by using the book to murder untouchable criminals all over the world.
This also is appealing to Mia (Margaret Qualley), who takes a decided interest in Light when he shows her his murder book and she gets to join in on the slaughter.
There is also another highlight of the movie named L (Lakeith Stanfield), an opaque and impersonal master detective whose modus operandi is so deadpan in its theatrics that he could only come from the worlds of manga and anime. Raised by a secret society orphanage for master detectives, L lets no one see his face or know his true name, which means he is unkillable by Ryuk since the demon needs a name and a face. Also despite being in Tokyo when he gets wrapped into the mystery of mega criminals committing suicide, he quickly deduces that the killer has “latent psychic abilities” and is in Seattle because of… reasons. So it’s a quick hop across the ocean where he’ll partner with Light’s police father to bring this mysterious psychic vigilante down.
Death Note is a bizarre little movie with wacky ambition. Director Wingard crashed into the genre scene with a vengeance over the last few years, helming two of the best horror/thrillers of the decade in You’re Next and The Guest. Those movies also played with audience expectations and grindhouse conventions to gloriously giddy results, so it is easy to see how he and Netflix thought they could transfer comic panel camp to the screen in, say, the way that Edgar Wright made seven evil ex-boyfriends the most natural thing in the world with Scott Pilgrim.
But the trick is that Death Note’s impulses should really lie in the realm of the satirical and camp. The way Wingard frames sequences, such as a tête-à-tête between L and Light in a neon-lit diner, are so bombastic in their techno-noir shadings that the movie is apparently aware it should exist in a heightened allegorical world… but it cannot marry this sensibility at all with the teen angst regarding Light and Mia. As two characters who are given the bare minimum of development by Charley Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides, and Jeremy Slater’s flat screenplay, the duo likely are meant to be a Bonnie and Clyde, or a Tarantino True Romance styled fantasy, but the movie plays their crazy as somehow blandly straight.
These are protagonists who don’t have single moment of moral doubt about teaming up with a fanged ghoul that laughs like the Green Goblin, yet the audience is supposed to invest in their romance enough to care if they go to homecoming? What should be a shallow infatuation crumbles under a phony pander toward the YA audience, and undercuts what should be a demented dark comedy.
There is enough in the concept here to become a latter day Heathers, which also had murdering protagonists that the film didn’t mind letting you know were selfish assholes. But Death Note’s inability to embrace its kitsch or grand guignol is as whiplash inducing as these lovebirds are whiny.
The film’s two saving graces are Dafoe’s aforementioned Ryuk, who despite being made of CGI has the actor’s patented manic grin down to a tee, as well as Stanfield as L. The latter knows what kind of movie he is in—or what kind of movie it should be. Embracing the arch artificiality of a super-detective who chews candy while listening to The Wizard of Oz ditties, he revels in the weirdness that Wingard and his screenplay frequently rush over in a futile attempt to create pathos for their onscreen killers.
The filmmakers aren’t sure if this is comedy or horror, teen drama or wicked superhero film. And if no one making the movie can agree on what this thing is, what chance does an audience have? It’s a wonder Light and Ryuk didn’t write their own names down in the notebook, because their story seemed destined to end in a train wreck.
Death Note arrives on Netflix on Friday, Aug. 25.
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