On youthful idealism, Death Note, Adam Wingard's failings of curiosity and ambition ... and his inexplicable ascendancy
Death Note Netflix
Director: Adam Wingard
Screenplay: Charley Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides and Jeremy Slater, based on the manga series by Tsugumi Ôba and Takeshi Obata
Starring: Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield, Margaret Qualley, Shea Whigham, Paul Nakauchi, Jason Liles and Willem Dafoe
Not rated / 1 hour, 40 minutes / 2.35:1
Available on Netflix
(out of four)
If Death Note is what "Adam Wingard biting off way more than he can chew" looks like, then we're in for one colossal disaster three summers from now. The young director's next project is 2020's Godzilla vs. Kong, completing his inexplicable ascension from scrappy, micro-budget indie-horror upstart to mega-budget blockbuster overseer. Despite his well-established mediocrity as a filmmaker, his lack of proven box-office bonafides, and a general public indifference to his work, he has now been put in charge of two iconic brands and a budget likely in the neighborhood of $200 million.
To be fair, his hiring is standard practice for Warner Bros. and Legendary's ongoing monster-movie universe. Their three previous hires - Gareth Edwards, Jordan Vogt-Roberts, Michael Dougherty - had, between them, directed a total of four features before getting handed the keys to a franchise. Of the four, Wingard has the longest resume and the least talent. It was his inept camerawork that suffocated the mordant comedy of You're Next. He was the one responsible for a handful of the worst segments from V/H/S, V/H/S 2, and The ABCs of Death. He was the guy who brought back the Blair Witch seemingly as a roundabout way of proving he had no new ideas for it. He's been banging out features and shorts for a decade or so now, and he just ... hasn't gotten any good at it.
That conclusion is virtually inescapable after Death Note, which gives Wingard the biggest budget of his career ($40 million), the most fertile material he's ever handled, and the enviable creative freedom that comes with working for Netflix. There's no excuse for this kind of faceplant; he had everything he could have wanted. His failure isn't a matter of getting snowed under by the scope of the narrative (which has been a 108-chapter manga, a 37-episode animated series, and three live-action features in Japan - among other things), but almost an inability to recognize the scope and ambition of it. He darts through arcs and ideas with the blindness of a man so intent on his destination he never bothers to notice anything along the way. Which, in this case, would be a morality play of nigh-apocalyptic scale - of justice and gods and hubris, of moralistic autocracy and the follies of youth. Or, rather, moralistic autocracy as the grandest youthful folly of all.
But that's not what Wingard sees. Wingard sees a movie about an eccentric cop taking down a seemingly omnipotent killer - a detective story with a neat supernatural twist. Everything within that - everything an artist might presumably be inclined to examine - is set dressing. The thorny psychology and self-validating moral reasoning that envelops the central (teen) characters; the interlocking vices of youth and power, and the way the former's euphoric illusions of invincibility substantiates the protagonist's newfound control over life and death. That this control is entirely unearned, a stroke of right-place, right-time dumb luck, only adds to the twisty, paradoxical internal logic - something Wingard could presumably have fun with if he cared about anything more than efficiently moving the story along. He has a cosmic, silly, quasi-philosophical crime epic and all he sees is a high-concept episode of a procedural drama.
The death note itself has had many owners before Light Turner (Nat Wolff), but it seems right at home landing with him, nestling comfortably in between his notebooks and textbooks and homework. It fell from the sky, onto the damp grass of the athletic grounds of a Seattle-area high school; Light was simply there to pick it up, not realizing he was inheriting a power previously held by a long line of presumably doomed possessors. The notebook explains clearly what it is and how it works. Too clearly, even. The film's most savvy, self-aware decision is acknowledging, then largely ignoring, the countless rules governing the Death Note and its owner. The script withholds the rules until one or another is necessary to the plot; it's one of the few pieces of streamlining that works to the benefit of the film, which otherwise feels streamlined and diluted to death.
You write down a name in the Death Note. It's not just a name, but an entire identity associated with it. You're picturing the person's face as you scribble the letters on the page. You might even write down a cause of death, or the circumstances surrounding it. And like that, you've sealed the person's fate. (One caveat is that the death must be physically possible. No one can be stabbed to death by a unicorn.) Light takes to it right away, first by offing a school bully but, soon after, focusing only on more serious criminals. A metaphysical vigilante is born. By his side (but invisible to everyone else) is the spiky, shadowy, grinning death god Ryuk (played, needless to say, by Willem Dafoe), who encourages and taunts and keeps Light abreast of the rules.
But in Wingard's view, that whole scenario amounts only to: Guy is in over is head, and there's an off-the-books cop trying to uncover his identity. Quick and easy. Once the basic setup is established, and Light finds a girlfriend, Mia (The Leftovers' Margaret Qualley), to be his confidante and accomplice (she accepts and embraces the Death Note rather inexplicably), Wingard stampedes through the entire essence of Death Note's conceit. He throws together a montage that basically plays like a trailer to a much more interesting movie. In this montage: We see Light immediately getting overcome by a god complex, his power emboldened by newfound consumptions of sex and notoriety, his own personal vengeance giving way to greater purpose. One by one the wicked drop dead, and he finds a way to attach his name - "Kira" is the call sign he chooses - to each of his victims, like a notarized signature. The entire world - I repeat: the entire world - takes notice. Kira comes to be worshipped in some corners as a god - an angel of justice - and feared by criminals and law enforcement alike.
We're still in the montage. He goes from high-school kid with a sudden supernatural secret to globally worshiped god in a span of three cinematic minutes. It's modern legend and that legend's entire origin story, thrown together in the space of a music video. That's not efficiency - it's indifference. It's laziness. That montage is the movie - or, for a superior filmmaker, would have been - but after it's over, we have to sit through a whole other hour or so of interminably boring cat-and-mouse. It's almost a pity that Lakeith Stanfield is so good as L - the prodigiously intelligent, pharmacologically enhanced, practically mystical private contractor who's taken the task of identifying/catching Kira upon himself - because within the limited time frame, his purpose is mostly in controlling and organizing a narrative that begs instead to be unleashed. Stanfield has such a uniquely expressive physicality as a performer that it's a shame his interpretation of the character is put to waste in a film that doesn't know how to use him. (You know you have a physically distinctive actor when even his silhouette is instantly recognizable.)
Beyond that, there's no real psychological dance between hunter and hunted (though the movie clearly intends there to be). Everything that's really going on among the three central characters - psychologically, physically, metaphysically - is treated just as mechanisms to drive the plot, instead of the other way around. There a fatal lack of curiosity on the filmmakers' part. I can't get that montage out of my mind, if only because it's such a comprehensive embodiment of Death Note's failure. In focusing on a character who literally gains control over life and death, Wingard never tries to experience or understand that power. Never indulges it, gets swept up by it, never really expresses what is happening to Light. To him, it's just a narrative hook.
What Light wants is what youth always wants - to reshape the world with his own ideals, his own sense of right and wrong. The shock of adult realities hasn't worn off yet - and the fact that his dad (Shea Whigham) is a homicide detective with exactly the opposite values (at least when it comes to justice and due process) is a cherry of rebellion on top of it all. This is both a classical story and a singular one, and there's a lot to dig into. But Wingard's not the guy to do the digging. He directs with the bland flair of an impostor. He uses tilted angles as if to tell us, "Hey, I've seen directors use tilted angles in movies before ... how about if I used tilted angles?" By and large, he doesn't know why he's using them (see also: Roger Ebert's review of Battlefield Earth), so they serve as stand-ins for a directorial style he does not actually possess.
Without any remarkable filmmaking skills to speak of, simpler is always better for Wingard. The best examples of his work - the climactic haunted-house chaos of Blair Witch, the acerbic personal tensions at the dinner table in You're Next - are simple scenarios that he makes the most of. His best film overall (by a wide margin), The Guest, has one simple, concise concept: the character himself, the ultimate alpha male (of a specifically cinematic sort), a charming, magnetic, masculine absurdity. It was a movie stripped down to one character's essence and filtered through Wingard's own (primarily '80s) influences, and it worked. Beyond that, though, he's shown very little feel for the big picture, or big ideas - or ideas at all, for that matter. There are so many things Death Note could be, and so few that it actually is.