Death Note (2017)
★ / ★★★★
For a story that is supposed to highlight the power of imagination, “Death Note,” based on the screenplay by Charles Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides, and Jeremy Slate, is malnourished of this very element, from the way the characters are written to the manner in which events unfold surrounding a teenager named Light Turner (Nat Wolff) who comes across a mysterious notebook imbued with the power to kill any individual whose name is written inside its pages. It is a challenge to sit through material with potential to genuinely engage and impress but proves incapable of doing so with every passing scene.
Due to the writing’s lack of depth, we never believe the fantastic reality the protagonist finds himself embroiled in. While the dialogue acknowledges that Light is supposed to be smart for his age, his decisions prove otherwise—he is unable to think three to five steps ahead of whatever he is up against, whether it be his girlfriend (Margaret Qualley), his father (Shea Whigham), who also happens to be the chief of police, an enigmatic detective from the FBI (Lakeith Stanfield), or Ryuk (voiced by Willem Dafoe), the demon god of death that enacts the killings specified by the owner of the notebook. That is, until the moment when the plot requires that he be intelligent enough to pull off a surprising final act. Since it is all too convenient, we feel cheated of our time.
The plot requires an exploration of moral gray. Essentially, it brings up that question that if you had the power to kill anybody at a drop of a hat, would you do it? But the material is not at all interested in depth or philosophical musings. Rather, it is interested in pushing the pacing in such a way that the story creates a semblance of the story moving forward—even if it is inappropriate at times. In actuality, ironically, mindful viewers will recognize that the story is stuck in one position. Sure, events occur and unfold, but, for instance, do we actually learn about the subtleties implied within the numerous rules surrounding the curious notebook? An important sequence involves a ferris wheel. This ride works as a metaphor for, and critique of, this picture.
While the deaths are visually impressive, reminiscent of “Final Destination” horror films when we can actually see them transpire rather than being manically edited, less striking is the look of Ryuk. While appropriate that it hides in the shadows, when it is shown under some shade of light, the substandard CGI takes away from the already low-level tension of the film. Although Dafoe taps into some interesting notes when it comes to his voice acting, it is disappointing that the character itself never does nor says anything particularly revealing or surprising.
“Death Note” is directed by Adam Wingard, filmmaker of stylish pictures such as “The Guest,” “You’re Next,” and “A Horrible Way to Die.” But his sense of style comes with a load of painful mediocrity, leaving a bland taste in the mouth, content-wise, rather than a shock to the system. With the aforementioned works, at least it is apparent he intends to follow his own vision. Here, however, the material reeks of desperation to be liked, to be modern, to be mainstream to the point where his stamp is no longer visible. A bad movie with a specific vision (and execution) is always more tolerable than a bad movie that embraces any and all compromises.