Films rarely need to be longer. Plenty of films suffer from a little too much fat, and could stand to lose a scene or two that fail to forward the plot or build on the characters. Adam Wingard’s adaptation of Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata’s manga series Death Note suffers from the opposite problem where the movie is so eager to get to the action that it feels like it never has time to breathe. The story has interesting characters played by strong actors, so we want to know these people more, but the narrative is always in an awful rush to get to the next scene. Sometimes that can be exhilarating like when a reveal comes much sooner than you expect, but oftentimes scenes lack the dramatic buildup necessary to land an emotional punch. Wingard’s direction also seems torn between treating the material seriously or going for something surreal and twisted. Ultimately, Death Note is an entertaining but frustrating glimpse at what could have been a better film.
Outcast Light Turner (Nat Wolff) is gawking at cheerleader Mia Sutton (Margaret Qualley) when a notebook literally falls from the sky and lands next to him. While in detention for selling exams to other students, Light takes out the notebook, labeled “Death Note”, and learns from its accompanying death god Ryuk (voiced by Willem Dafoe) that the notebook gives the bearer the power to kill anyone and choose their manner of death. After trying it out on the school bully and the person who got away with killing Light’s mom, Light reveals his powerful notebook to Mia. Together, they decide to use it to make the world a better place by offing bad guys. Working under the name “Kira” (Japanese for “killer” to throw off the police), they begin to get drunk on their power until freelance detective “L” (Lakeith Stanfield) joins forces with Light’s father, detective James Turner (Shea Whigham), to bring Kira to justice.
There’s a lot in Death Note that’s weird and outlandish, and yet Wingard doesn’t go far enough to lean into it. The film is stylish, but it could have used more of the flair he brought to The Guest in order to highlight the dark and surreal nature of the story. If you’re not going to try and ground your story in reality by cluing us into Light’s mundane life and instead have the Death Note fall from the sky less than five minutes into the story, then the movie needs to be pitched at a more ridiculous level. Stanfield, giving a crackerjack performance, seems to understand this and does so without ever losing the emotional core of his character. L is still a person and an interesting one without ever becoming a series of quirks. For Wingard’s part, he wants gruesome, over-the-top kills, but he also wants to ground the story enough that it feels like it’s part of our world.
However, the story never fully encompasses that reality. There’s an adaptation of Death Note that could do this if the director really wanted Light to wrestle with the consequences of his actions, but he doesn’t bat an eye at killing 400 people or even watching some of them die. So if he and Mia are going to be sociopaths, then the movie has to be as wild as they are because it certainly can’t look at them as real people otherwise they’d be too despicable to follow even with Wolff and Qualley’s charismatic performances.
That’s not to say that uneven direction sinks Death Note as much as it doesn’t take the movie as far as it needs to go, which is ultimately the film’s overall problem. It has all the elements for being a compelling feature, but it always comes up short. The tone is kind of stylish, but not stylish enough. The movie does the bare minimum to tell its story, but it could be longer to help flesh out the characters. The arc of Light and Mia’s relationship has to mean something, and its climax lacks weight because the story has been speeding around also trying to cover L’s investigation, Ryuk’s taunting, and Light’s attempts to avoid capture.
For all of its flaws, Death Note is still fun to watch, especially thanks to its talented cast, but it’s constantly reminding you of how much better it could be if it just slowed down a bit and spent a bit more time with its intriguing characters dealing with a fascinating premise. Instead, Death Note rushes to get it out of your Netflix list so you can move on to something else.
Death Note hits Netflix tomorrow, August 25th.