Dead on Arrival
Well, I didn’t expect for the absolutely mediocre Ghost in the Shell (2017) to be topped in terms of worst American remake of a Japanese anime, but here we are. Whoops, spoiled my opinion of Death Note (2017) up front, but hang on there readers, there’s layers as to why this film doesn’t work. And just like Ghost in the Shell, the whitewashing controversy ranks low as to one of the reasons why this film messes up as badly as does, which seems to be a repeating pattern when these kinds of decisions are made.
So we have Light Turner (Nat Wolff), a smartass teenager in Seattle who comes across a black notebook called the Death Note, dropped purposefully by the death god, Ryuk (Willem Dafoe). Ryuk explains he’d like a human to “sort out the chaff” and chooses Light (for unexplained reasons) to write down people’s names in the Death Note as well as a method for them to die for which Ryuk will carry out the execution per the orders. These deaths must conform to specific rules, but so long as Light has a name and a face in his mind, he can execute virtually anyone in the entire world. After Light demonstrates the Death Note’s power to his girlfriend Mia (Margaret Qualley), she encourages him to use the book to become a god known as “Kira” and eliminates criminals the world over. While people do in fact begin to worship “Kira,” some people like Light’s father (Shea Whigham) don’t like the idea of someone being judge/jury/executioner; which attracts the attention of the brilliant, but curiously off putting, FBI detective known only as “L” (Lakeith Stanfield) who resolves to uncover “Kira’s” true identity. Trouble for Light is that he can’t use the Death Note to kill “L” because Light doesn’t know his real name or see his unmasked face, thus beginning a cat and mouse chase between the young men.
On paper, the premise works gangbusters of a device that can kill anyone in the entire world and said device is in the hands of an arrogant child who fancies himself a god while being chased by the one person he can’t use his device to kill. And the reason I know it works is because there was a whole manga and anime series based around this premise that worked very well (up until a certain point). So it frustrates me to no end that the filmmakers lead by Adam Wingard (director’s of last year’s bland Blair Witch) managed to take a brilliant concept, cram it into a 110 minute film, strip out anything that would have made this interesting, and stuffed in a ton of tonal whiplash that would make The Book of Henry proud.
Let me start with some positives before I start slapping this film around, I really dug Lakeith Stanfield in this. He’s been finding his way into high quality projects like Dope and this year’s excellent Get Out, but this is the first time I’ve seen him in a leading role and he makes the most of it. Granted, his portrayal of L is considerably different from the source material where he was a blank-eyed, pale, lanky sociopath, but Stanfield injects enough strangeness to the character that I immediately paid attention whenever he came on screen. His only trouble was that the script and direction fail him towards the end when he starts committing acts that don’t fit with the character he was set up as at all. Stanfield does his best to right the ship, but Wingard seemed hellbent on making this movie as silly as possible.
What I was expecting to be silly was Willem Dafoe’s portrayal of Ryuk, and while I certainly got that, I was still pleasantly entertained. His voice cackles in a way that reminded me a lot of his turn as Green Goblin in Sam Raimi’s Spider-man (which was still a great performance no matter how bizarre his outfit looked), but for an off putting character like Ryuk it works well. He’s portraying a messed up looking and devious death god for crying out loud, so the voice matches the weird ass look. Hell, even the CGI work done for Ryuk looks miles better than the original 2006 live action film (don’t click that if you don’t want nightmares tonight). But sadly, Ryuk is not as heavily involved in this adaptation of the manga as he was in other interpretations. Which would have been fine if your leads were compelling enough to sustain the movie on its own…but that signals the other shoe is about to drop isn’t it?
Let’s tackle Mia’s character first because I want to save Light for last. Mia’s character is one of the biggest changes from the source material as she becomes much more of an anti-hero and a composite of two characters from the anime and manga. While this does save some time on character development, it also makes the world feel considerably smaller. You really only have five main characters in a film that’s essentially describing a global conflict with every other named character essentially being fodder for murder porn. But a big issue I had with Mia’s portrayal was the actress playing her. I’ve been told by other friends that Margaret Qualley is quite good in fare like The Leftovers (and I completely didn’t recognize her from The Nice Guys), but she’s goddamn atrocious in this.
While she was able to convey some degree of chemistry with Nat Wolff in the first half of the film, she goes completely silly in the latter half. Especially in the climactic finale, I didn’t believe for a second anything that was happening on screen with her because she didn’t sell me on a major dramatic turn in the final act. It didn’t help that this antagonistic turn wasn’t even set up correctly. What I mean is that she’s introduced as a bored high school teenager before becoming an ego-maniacal murderer in her own right that gets sexually aroused by the thought of killing people. That might sound risque, but it’s execution leaves it a boring confused mess. Hey speaking of boring, confusing messes let’s talk about Light.
If Margaret Qualley was bad in this film, Nat Wolff only goes above and beyond the call of mediocrity. Taking on over-the-top reactions even as he commits over 450 murders worldwide, Wolff’s interpretation of Light is just a baffling mess of ideas. For this American adaptation, Wolff acts like a scared, punk ass teenager taking a powerful artifact on a joy ride. And when he’s threatened, Wolff screams hysterically to the point you just start getting annoyed with him. This annoyance grows when his demeanor changes on a dime when he decides to go on a global murder spree, but for some odd reason he shows hesitation in committing more murders when his grand plan is threatened by a complete unknown entity. Perhaps the filmmakers intended to make a complex character out of Light for this interpretation, but they needed to write a role that was indeed layered and have an actor who could pull it off. The writers couldn’t do the former and Wolff is definitely not capable as the latter.
You may be surprised to read that I’m not going to make a big deal about the whitewashing issue for this remake of a Japanese property. While I’m very much in favor of more diversity in the film medium, I honestly believed that using a white actor Light could have worked wonders. See, what made Light fascinating in the source material is that he’s very much a sociopath with delusions of grandeur, seeing other people as peons to his world class intellect even as he was raised in a healthy family with a semi-wealthy upbringing. Further, Light in the anime/manga would coldly and calmly manipulated people as he orchestrated his grand plan to become a god, sacrificing dozens of innocent people in his path. In the hands of a more deft filmmaker with clear knowledge of racial strife like Jordan Peele, this character could have easily been a metaphor for white privilege. One that is attempted to be thwarted by a man of a minority race, who fails only because no one believes him that an “upstanding” member of society could be such a ruthless killer.
I bring this up because for Death Note to work for American audiences, it would have to make drastic changes that other American remakes accomplished. See The Magnificent Seven (the 1960 version being a remake of Seven Samurai), A Fisful of Dollars (remaking Yojimbo), and The Ring (remaking the classic Ringu before being obliterated by awful sequels). For each of these Japanese stories, the remakes all made changes that would keep certain plot elements while changing elements that would resonate more with a Western audience’s familiarity. Hell they even refer to Ryuk as a “death god” which is a Japanese concept foreign to many Western audiences; instead, they could have easily changed him to an “angel of death” which many in the West do have familiarity with. So, for Death Note, a golden opportunity was presented to take a weakness with casting and turning it into a strength through some clever writing…writing that painfully not there. Instead, the film commits the sin of wallowing in the source material’s iconography, without creating something new and worthwhile.
Of course, all of this falls on the head of Adam Wingard, who seems to me as a work-for-hire director after making a name for himself in horror circles. He seemed to me like he didn’t much care to improve upon the faults of the source material (which there are many) nor did he know what the hell to do with it. At some points, the film is a straight up horror film with gore-tastic kills (but these are too few and far in between), but at other times the film feels like an over-the-top comedy with his direction with Wolff. The climax in particular is deeply embarrassing as a love ballad is blared in the background while the characters move in slow motion, giving exaggerated faces. I couldn’t help but laugh at it and I’m not sure if this was intentional or not. The film is rife between being a paranoid mystery film and a goofy spoof of an anime that took itself way too damn seriously. The tonal shifts are too many to ignore because none of them make a remote lick of sense.
I kept debating with myself if I wanted to give this a low Rental, as some (and by that, I mean very, VERY few) of the visuals were interesting to me as well as Stanfield’s and Dafoe’s performances. But these are just mere drops of soda as I slogged through a desert of baffling design decisions, hammy and unbelievable acting, and missed opportunity after missed opportunity. I don’t know who the hell to recommend this film to as fans of the series have clearly made their displeasure of this adaptation known online and non-fans have barely anything of interest to watch. Despite being on Netflix, I would skip this at a moment’s notice. This is…
SOME OL’ BULLSHIT