At his best, director Adam Wingard has an enviable ability to express his characters’ intensifying feelings through the connection between image and soundtrack. Take an early scene from The Guest in which Maika Monroe’s teen protagonist, having just spent the evening sweltering from her proximity to Dan Stevens’s suave visitor, flops onto her bed and listens to music, visibly smitten with her newfound crush. In part, the film becomes about her unraveling fantasy of permanently living in such a moment and squashing her dream of being wrapped inside another person. As Joss Whedon once said about an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it’s about “what happens if you give him what he wants and he starts treating you like shit.”
Death Note, Wingard’s ninth feature, expands that youthful expectation onto a global scale by adapting the Japanese manga of the same name into a specifically American tale of how the caresses and thrusts of fresh romance become, literally, weapons possessing the capacity for global destruction and domination. If in The Guest sexual feelings were crushed under the boot heels of a corporate entity gone rogue, in Death Note it’s the sex of a teenage couple itself which gives birth to the potential for a new global order.
The film opens, mid-song and in slow motion, on Light (Nat Wolff) and Mia (Margaret Qualley) exchanging glances around their high school’s athletic field. Their seemingly innocuous exchange serves as a perfect storm of destiny and chance for Light, who soon finds himself in possession of a “death note” gifted to him by Ryuk (Willem Dafoe), a devil-like figure with a gift for gab who suggests a cross between Emil Jannings’s satanic trickster from F.W. Murnau’s Faust and Walter Huston’s Mr. Scratch from William Dieterle’s The Devil and Daniel Webster. Essentially, Light now holds the ability to write a person’s name on a note and dictate how and when that person will die. When Mia finds out about these powers, which Light proves by killing a kidnapper during a local news broadcast, the pair alternates between sessions of sex and staging elaborate international murders under the code name of Kira.
Music informs Wingard’s sense of tone and place throughout Death Note, from Atticus and Leopold Ross’s slithering electronic score to numerous 1980s ballads, among them Jennifer Rush’s “The Power of Love” and Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away.” Wingard thoroughly keys his characters’ emotions to the film’s music, commenting in various ways on what’s transpiring on screen. But Death Note’s tonal assurance falters once L (Lakieth Stanfield), a Tokyo-based sleuth with some combination of exemplary deductive abilities and psychic powers, sets out in hot pursuit of Kira’s trail. As more shadowy figures and exposition are wedged into the film to satisfy fans of the source material, Wingard loses hold of his initially trenchant central construction of a globally inclined outlaw couple fueled by a strange romance scored to pop music and thriving on violence. Whereas the more grounded scenes of Death Note, whether in Light’s home or at school, anchor a startlingly bloody fantasy of power run amok, the scenes that fixate on super powers and code-busting seldom manage to rise above the realm of serviceable YA fiction.
The choice to depict via montage the couple’s transformation into agents of global terror also proves irksome; it works effectively as exposition but comes at the expense of a more forceful perception of how the physicality of sex, especially to teenage virgins, equates with feelings of an all-consuming power. Here lies the film’s horror-driven pulse, but it’s one that Wingard never fully devotes his energies to. What results is a fuzzy, even incoherent reconciliation between the absurdity of Light and Mia’s roles as mass murderers and their reception as global celebrities, where vaguely defined armies of devotees operating as soldiers start to amass in Kira’s name. While the film’s final third circles back to Light and Mia’s passions, it’s too late to salvage the whole of Death Note. As the couple’s promises of devotion to one another have given way to self-preservation, so has Wingard’s acute depiction of young lovers in heat been sapped by the inanities of requisite franchise footwork.