Directed by Adam Wingard, the Netflix original film Death Note is a supernatural crime thriller that follows high schooler Light Turner’s (Nat Wolff) deadly rise to power as Kira, the world’s greatest mass murderer.
Death Note borrows only the bare essentials of the popular source manga, including a few visual motifs. A high schooler, who is dismayed by the state of violent crime and general abuse between people worldwide, takes it upon himself to murder criminals of all types with a supernatural notebook, the Death Note. Aiding him is Ryuk (voiced by William Dafoe), the death god who brought the Death Note to Earth, and Mia Sutton (Margaret Qualley), who shares Light’s ambitions. Before long, the mysterious super-detective known only as “L” (Lakeith Stanfield) launches a frantic manhunt to find Kira and bring him to justice.
On a visual note, Death Note is mediocre and uninspired. Many of the deaths inflicted by the notebook, even the first, involve generous amounts of gore in Final Destination-style scenarios, but it feels overindulgent more than shocking or thrilling. More visual tropes emerge, such as Light’s messy bedroom, constant rain, a carnival and high school prom and sports scenes. It feels like a collection of Western horror cliches, interrupted by a few elements from the original manga, such as Ryuk’s appetite for apples and L’s love of candy and his odd posture while sitting. The horror element of Death Note is definitely favored, which is logical for a movie about death, but puts some distance between it and the source manga. The sound design is mostly solid, with excellent tension-building and atmosphere buildup in most scenes. The exception may be a song that plays during the climax, and the overall effect almost feels like self-parody.
The acting, too, is hit or miss, often miss. Light is a fairly unsympathetic lead, alternating between acting like a shallow jerk (often with expletives) and acting frightened and insecure, none of which is compelling. In one scene, Light comically overreacts to Ryuk’s appearance (even factoring in how scary Ruyk looks), and Light’s insecurities about his position as Kira feel rote and compulsory more than anything. Similarly, his partner in crime, Mia, is a cartoonishly dark and cynical girl who feels like a shallow collection of “edgy girl” elements, such as her smiling at a gruesome horror movie or trying to manipulate her boyfriend into giving her the Death Note on pain of death. Their on-screen chemistry is minimal, and their love arc is both rushed and uncomfortable to watch. Supporting characters, such as Light’s cop father James Turner (Shea Whigham) and Watari (Paul Nakauchi) are only adequate, leaving Ryuk as the sole standout, with his excellent voice, laughter and overall appearance.
The plot is rushed and often awkward, and even counting Light’s clever use of the Death Note at the end, it falls far short of the original manga’s complex plot and is only average for movies like this. The pacing goes from too slow in the first third to horribly rushed in for the rest of the film. Some plot points also raise some eyebrows, with some character actions seeming either a leap of logic or so easy that they relieve all tension (especially where Watari is concerned). In fact, the plot is based more on horror movie tropes than a battle of wits, making the movie feel even more shallow and empty.
As a whole, Death Note tries to reimagine the classic battle of wits manga into a lean horror movie, but its awkward tone and plot, unlikeable characters and shallow use of the manga’s themes of justice leave it as a B-side horror movie at best.