I’ll have to trust the breadth and popularity of the 14-year-old “Death Note” franchise in Japan — which encompasses more than 100 issues of manga, two TV series, four live-action movies, several video games and a stage musical — that there’s something, anything, remotely interesting about its premise.
Director Adam Wingard’s American remake for Netflix is the latest anime adaptation to get mangled (and whitewashed) in translation; the new horror-thriller is cheesy, asinine, convoluted and ludicrous. On the plus side, if your eyeballs need a vigorous workout, this will have them rolling nonstop.
A leather-bound notebook with the words “DEATH NOTE” on the cover falls from the sky next to Seattle high-schooler Light Turner (Nat Wolff, “Paper Towns”), who seems pretty unfazed by the fact that a leather-bound notebook with the words “DEATH NOTE” has just fallen from the sky next to him. Inside are dozens of rules, an invitation to wish people dead by jotting down their name, and a spiky-backed, apple-chomping murder genie named Ryuk (voiced by Willem Dafoe, acting for a completely different movie).
Angry at the bullies that menace his school and the world beyond, Light quickly scribbles the names of people who have personally done him wrong, then those of criminals who appear on the news. (Despite his cop father, played by Shea Whigham, Light has evidently never heard of “innocent until proven guilty.”) He gains a groupie-turned-girlfriend-turned-Lady Macbeth in cheerleader Mia (Margaret Qualley, “The Leftovers”), with whom he makes out while giddily plotting who to kill next. Light and Mia can’t help claiming credit for their executions; their victims blame “Kira” for their deaths in their last minutes alive. And then “Death Note” hurtles off the rails, and the deep end, to Japan.
Half an hour in, it becomes clear that writers Charley Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides (“Immortals”) and Jeremy Slater (“Fantastic Four”) have no idea how to convincingly marry the “Heathers”-esque blood-stained teen romance with ambitious world-building, a cat-and-mouse chase between “Kira” and an investigator named L (Lakeith Stanfield, “Crown Heights”), and meditations on topics as disparate as violence-as-crime-deterrence and the messianic hope of gods. (Never mentioned: Whether all wrongdoers deserve to be punished by death or if indiscriminately killing criminals just creates society-churning chaos as other criminals strive to fill the void left behind.)
The dialogue is wretched enough on its own, but “Death Note” forces us to listen to the self-important ramblings of a teenager who thinks he’s got it all figured out. And yet the movie’s biggest failure is its willful agnosticism toward the morality of Light’s massacres. They don’t exist in a complex gray between black and white; they just are.
The filmmakers throw in some usual Hollywood pablum about the dangers of vigilante justice and the seductions of absolute power, but those flimsy messages fly in the face of the rest of the film. Nor are the deaths fun or suspenseful to watch — curious for a horror helmer like Wingard, who directed such well-received genre fare as “You’re Next” and “The Guest.” Save for the denouement atop a ferris wheel, the whole picture reeks of paycheck collection.
Instead of thoughtful ideas or plausible characters, we get lawyerly calculations: Exploiting this rule or loophole, Light and/or Mia kill X or Y or Z individual. The increasing tension between the lovers plays out predictably and lifelessly, especially with Wolff remaining wooden throughout. Stanfield gives his first less-than-electrifying performance that I’ve seen as a screaming, sleepless weirdo who dresses like a ninja and squats on chairs with both feet on the seat. (Rude.)
By his final scene, he’s reduced to animalistic desperation, growling in anger, the light gone from his eyes. I know how he feels.