Death Note (2017): Written by Jeremy Slater, Vlas Parlapanides, and Charles Parlapanides. Directed by Adam Wingard. Starring: Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield, Margaret Qualley, Shea Whigham, Paul Nakauchi, Jason Liles, and Willem Dafoe. Running Time: 100 minutes. Based on the original (and vastly superior) manga of the same name by Tsugumi Ohba.
**spoilers for the movie Death Note follow. Which doesn’t matter, because you really shouldn’t see it anyway**
When making a movie based on pre-existing source material, there are two special pitfalls you can’t afford to fall into. One is to stray so far from the story’s origins that you contradict or spoil what made it good in the first place, thus pissing off legions of pre-existing fans. On the flip side, pander too much to said fans, and the end result will be too stuck up its own lore to make sense to new viewers, thus depriving the franchise a chance to expand is audience.
The new live-action, Netflix-produced version of Death Note (directed by Adam Wingard) is the type of sheer disaster that somehow manages to sniff out every possible way to do both. Nearly everything about it- the casting, writing, development of characters, editing, music choices, pacing, and beyond- will be utterly odious to anyone with even the slightest respect or affection for the original manga and anime. And yet the movie tries so hard to rack up Fanboy Brownie Points by dropping one pointless Easter egg after another and never bothering to explain itself that I can’t imagine anyone NOT coming in with detailed knowledge of the original story being able to make heads or tails of the damn thing.
Now, if you DO indeed happen to be reading this as an Uninitiated, here’s the skinny; a bored high school student named Light, frustrated with the state of the world, one day finds a magical notebook that, according to the rules printed in the cover, allows its user to kill people in whichever manner they see fit. After being visited by a Shinigami- supernatural beings that normally use Death Notes to control human life spans- and having this spelled out to him, Light resolves to use this power to kill off all those he deems evil, so as to create a new world free of crime or corruption.
The surge of mysterious killings that result gets the attention of both law enforcement and the world at large, dividing society between those who support the idea behind Light’s actions and those who simply see him as another wannabe serial killer who needs to be brought to justice. A police task is formed to stop him, led by a mysterious, genius detective known only as ‘L,’ who soon starts to suspect Light. The race is soon on to see which one can figure out the identity of the other first and kill/arrest them before their own safety is compromised.
Except in the case of this film, it’s less of a “race” and more of a particularly drunk auto-pileup on the freeway. And instead of the high-level, intellectual chess match that characterized the back-and-forth efforts of Light and L to out each other in the original series, here the second half devolves into a (literal) running competition between the two characters to see who can be the biggest dickwad to random civilians they happen to be passing by in a given scene.
This movie manages to fail so amazingly in ways both large and small that I’m honestly at a loss as to where to begin, but unlike the people who made this sucker, I will at least make an honest effort.
To whit; the editing is haphazard and nonsensical, with characters simply appearing on-screen as needed. The deaths Light arranges, especially at first, are gruesome and graphic just for its own sake. Whoever pieced together the pop-filled soundtrack deserves to be shot in the kneecaps. The worst offender in that last regard is the track that provides the down beat for the film’s climax, a narratively and technically garbled mess that hinges on a gob-smackingly stupid error of judgment by Light, and is set atop a collapsing Ferris wheel (because, you know, nothing says Death Note like THEME PARK RIDES). That particular scene was so egregious to everything I hold dear as a lover of good storytelling, it’s one of the only times in my life a movie has left me well and truly speechless.
Much of the fire thrown at this movie has centered on its whitewashing of a Japanese story by supplanting nearly every character with a white actor. The only character that remains Japanese is Watari, and even that’s ruined by his treatment being more than a little racist; of COURSE Watari is his real (and ONLY) name, because those silly Japanese don’t have last names, amiright? And while all those criticisms are justified, what frustrates me the most is that making the characters American didn’t NEED to be a problem; there are a lot of ways Death Note (or at least a similar concept) could be set in White America and work just fine. Even the idea of having a white Light and a black L (the only non-white cast member outside of Watari) is actually kind of interesting all on its own; it could easily function as solid social commentary by flipping around real-world dynamics of racial inequality before the law, if you’re creative enough. Sadly, the people making this movie weren’t, and aren’t, and likely will never be.
As bad as all of the above is, the way L is treated is probably the biggest sore point for me. The guy they cast to play him (Lakeith Stanfield) was one of the few good casting choices in the entire film; at first, he puts on a different, but still interesting, performance, and more or less gets L’s mannerisms down well while still putting his own spin on the character. But halfway through, some bumhole throws a switch off-screen, and when he reappears, L has turned into a different person entirely. Gone is the crime-fighting mastermind, and in his place we’re stuck with a frantic, impulsive, bumbling moron who couldn’t solve his way out of the back of an open van.
Amazingly, this exact same problem plagues the one other really good casting decision the filmmakers made. Willem Dafoe as Ryuk is absolutely an inspired choice- his voice is PERFECT for the character- and I dearly wish there were a better live-action Death Note film with him in it. Sadly, there is not, and here again, while the performance and the voice fit like a glove, the screenplay misses the boat entirely on what his character was supposed to be.
Part of the whole point of the original story was that everything that happens comes about only because Ryuk was bored and wanted to play around with some silly humans to kill time. There was no grand destiny, no greater spiritual or metaphysical purpose to what Light did- he just happened to find the Note by accident, used it until he got in over his head, and then Ryuk heads back to the Shinigami world to shoot craps with his pals, rinse, wash, repeat. Light came up with the idea of creating a new world on his own to soothe his addled ego, and the identity and concept of Kira was later given to him by cult followers on the internet. Meanwhile, Ryuk just stood in the background, eating apples and yucking it up.
Here, Ryuk shows up and mumbles some gobbledygook about it being his JOB to find human owners for the Note (wait, huh?), then proceeds to use his Force powers (oh yes, didn’t you know? Ryuk has effing FORCE POWERS) to directly push Light to become Kira and create scenarios where he’s forced to use the Note in increasingly slapdash ways. That the filmmakers managed to so utterly sour the only two good decisions they chanced upon in the exact same way tellingly reveals that pretty much no one involved in this project bothered to actually try and understand what made the original Death Note so great, and why it continues to hold up today.
Christ almighty, I’m onto my third page typing this, and I still haven’t gotten to the mandatory love interest. Right away, this character should have scored easy points with me for NOT being Misa Amane, one of my most loathed characters in any medium, but somehow- my God, SOMEHOW- she ends up even more useless and badly written. Both her attraction to Light (we get exactly ONE GLANCE to establish her crushing on him before they start boning) and her insatiable bloodlust for using the Note are without purpose or reason. She and Ryuk are basically there just to play Shoulder Angel/Shoulder Devil with Light, except that they’re both devils, and they both can’t be bothered to explain why. Because reasons are for suckers, y’all.
This movie is a complete and total failure as both an adaptation of a great story and as a stand-alone movie. It’s too sloppily-made and convoluted in its narrative to make a lick of sense to anyone not already a fan, and if you ARE already a fan you have even less reason to watch it, because truly, only fury and pain awaits you. Yes, it’s only on Netflix and is therefore *technically* free to watch, but it’s not even worth the click in the Netflix database. Don’t make them think people want more of this, because believe me, none of us do.