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“Death Note” | Movie Review

Death Note is a supernatural tale about a high school student who gains a god-like power over life and death. With the stroke of a pen, he decides who lives and who dies. Motivated by grief and hubris, Light embraces this power determined to use it to rid the world of bad people and give the people a god of retribution to cry out to. Interwoven with this thriller is a crime procedural as the authorities led by otherworldly talented detective L hunt for the killer – known as Kira – to bring him to justice and end his murderous spree.

Set in Seattle, Washington, we first meet Light Turner (Nat Wolff) as he attempts to stop a bully from harassing his girl crush Misa (Margaret Qualley) in a deserted breeze-way at their school only to end up lying in a puddle after being punched in the face. Soon thereafter, Light finds himself in trouble due to the large number of other people’s homework found completed in his handwriting in his backpack. These scenes introduce up the audience to and set the baseline for Light Turner’s personality: emo bordering on whiny, and character: morally flexible with more than a touch of arrogance. I don’t know if it was Director Adam Wingard’s intention to present this as his concept of an anti-hero, but Light reads more as a self-indulgent, angrily entitled, smartass than a charming yet broody, conflicted but charismatic genius with some seriously meta-level rationalization skills and nihilistic tendencies.

Netflix’s live action Death Note staring Nat Wolff as Light Turner, Margaret Qualley as Misa Sutton, Keith Stanfield as L, Shea Whigham as James Turner, Paul Nakauchi as Watari and Willem Dafoe giving voice to the demon keeper of the Death Note, Ryku boast a cast whose talent far outpaced the material they were given to work with.

What should have been a dark supernatural riddled with mayhem and deep moral dilemmas as two sharp-witted driven opponents face off in a thrilling game of cat-and-mouse lacked connection and failed to maintain the ominous edge this property is known for. Death Note didn’t commit to a story direction or an emotional tone. The storytelling couldn’t overcome the scripts shortcomings – and Wingard’s direction didn’t make up for the lack – leaving its highs inconsistent and its lows far too frequent.

Charley Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides, and Jeremy Slater wrote a screenplay without the necessary emotional world-building, vivid back story and detail coupled with perfectly timed verbal exchanges from Light and L that are hallmarks of the original. Without these elements, Netflix’s Death Note lacks depth and dimension; as a result, the final film is inadequate, incomplete, and insincere.

Ironically enough, Wingard’s Death Note exemplifies exactly how events would unfold if a thoughtless American really did come into possession of a mysterious occult item with unlimited power and started using it with little respect for the items history, significance, and little regard for the ultimate consequences of his selfish actions.

The Upside:

The Look: Cinematographer David Tattersall created superb visuals and called for a dark, but vivid imagery that’s a perfect backdrop for this story. The lighting added edge and eeriness when necessary, the cut scenes and sequences set a steady pace (there are moments where it slows too much) which, for the most part, and allows for plenty of time to unveil and dig into both the dominate story of the Death Note as well as more subtle themes lurking just out of frame.

Ryku: I don’t know if I’m completely sold on the choice of what Ryku looked like. It was a less than perfect given what is possible between skilled artist and costume design but it was more enough to keep away from looking campy. Tatersall’s lighting decisions addressed any visual shortfalls for the most part. Willem Dafoe brought Ryku to life making the most of his part and more than selling the demon. I wanted more. There was time for more and clearly, Willem Dafoe is more than capable of bring more than was asked of him. Ryku wasn’t cartoonish, there is just not nearly enough to live up to the demon’s true fiendish and destructive nature. The shallow writing just didn’t let him be scary or creepy enough.

L: The choice to race-bend this character was equal parts irritating and intriguing. Making the character black create a unique opportunities to explore L’s past and his path to becoming an elite investigator that the movie unfortunately mostly glosses over. I can’t say more on this because it would spoil moments in the film – and if you do watch I’d hate being responsible for blowing one of the few moments in this story that doesn’t feel phoned in.

So suffice to say Keith Stanfield respected the critical elements that make L a compelling character. He retained signature movements, speech patterns – we’re just not going to talk about the horrible spoken Japanese moment – and habits that are native to the character’s personality. He fit the image of an esoteric, brilliant, social inept investigator so intent on his goal that he’s oblivious to almost all else.

Stanfield’s commitment to L’s origins and his deliberate intellectual awkwardness add nuance to the character giving him more personality than everyone else. This change was fitting in that it felt like the best actor to embody the role showed up for work.  I can only imagine how much more depth L would’ve had if the script hadn’t failed Stanfield repeatedly.

But is has to be said, the very decision to make L black is some tone-deafness that painfully demonstrates the lack of understanding among white filmmakers of what calls for diversity on film means.  It feels like they looked at the roster of characters, except the lead, threw a dart at a board and then waved the casting decision around as proof of their commitment to “diversity.” The film got very lucky that the actor cast was more than up to the task of leveraging his skills and dedication to character building into creating a versionof L that was palatable.

The Downside:

The Story: No movie attempting to translate what was first presented episodically into a seamless feature-length format is going to be able to include everything that everyone loves. But everywhere Death Note fall short exposes all the ragged edges of this a horribly weak script. The entire script is sorely lacking in the rich and textured moments needed to really elevate this story and keep it mentally engaging by bringing it to life.

How Light gets the Death Note and his first encounter with Ryku are both visually well done and captivating, but lazy in all other regards. Wingard’s direction strips away too much of the original back story that explains what the Death Note, who Ryku is (and what he really wants) but puts nothing new in its place. The oversights expose the gaping holes all through the storytelling. The scenes rely heavily on the music and visuals to carry them forward but that doesn’t get you very far once the talking starts.

The Story Arc: Wingard rushes all the relationships building leaving most of the characters emotionally lacking and shallow. Where there is development, both James Turner and L each better than average details attached to their back story, the film hardly utilizes it to draw connections between characters.

Almost all of the dark moments and contentiousness is lost as Ryku and Light’s relationship unfolds on-screen. Ryku’s motives are barely explored, iconic imagery and moments are included but left unexplained despite there being plenty of time and contextual room to do so.

Where there should be moments fraught with tension and feeling that connects you to the characters, the story instead leap frogs around using splashy murders sequences and newsreel-style data dumps to move the timeline forward whether you care what’s happening or not.

Misa: Very little screen time is spent developing Light and Misa’s relationship. Regardless of the fact Margaret Qualley did a good job (with the little she had) to visually illustrate Misa’s increasingly pragmatic nature  – this chick is got some sociopathic tendencies that need treatment – and growing obsession with the mission and the Death Note, the lack of time spent on her emotional connection to Light undercut it all.

Light Turner: Nat Wolff’s portrayal of this character annoyed the ever-loving shit out of me from beginning to end. He is not Light. That is all.

The Ending: it’s suppose to be a cliffhanger but it just highlighted how poorly story components were threaded together because I walked away from the film more interested in what it hadn’t bothered to tell me now than what it may have left to tell me in the future.

There’s just nothing here to motivate you to invest in anyone on either side of the line. In a story that’s suppose to be exploring aspects of good and evil. It’s very easy to shift from rooting for person to another person repeatedly regardless of their actions.

Divorced of its history, Death Note is at best a late night watch; it has some fun moments, plenty to yell at the television over – seriously, what is with people using mystical items without reading the damn rules? – and just enough gruesome deaths to titillate some horror fans.

But if you’re any kind of Death Note fan, just know before you press play, this movie is going to piss you off.

Grade: C

Don’t take my word for it, go make friends with the original and see how very of little of what makes Death Note compelling made its way into Wingard’s version.

••

A few things: I am a big fan of Death Note; the manga by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, anime series and – for all its limitations – the live action Japanese film adaptation.

Death Note merchandise as gifts are on my “go-to” list and I’ve been known to get overly excited at really great Death Note cosplay dragging the person around to show them off like I had something to do with the outfit’s creation…and refusing to call them by any name other than the character’s.

So I admit to being biased on the subject and looking at anything produced on this side of the pond with a judgy side-eye. When Netflix announced it planned to take a crack at making a live action Death Note my hesitation slid into outright concerned after director, Adam Wingard referred to it as having “a great premise” that he could “breath new life into” during San Diego Comic Con this year.

When American writers, directors, and show-runners start talking about ‘freshness’ and referring to the source material as a ‘premise’ it almost always decodes to 1) wanting to reorient the story in America, 2) take extreme liberties with the ideological and philosophical themes running through the story and world-building, and 3) cast white people as the main characters (and most of the secondary characters) with little regard to whether the change undermines the story ethos.

US filmmakers knee-jerk impulse to whitewash movies is not only unappealing to many existing fans – particularly fans of color – it threatens to strip away exactly what was so very intriguing about the story premise in the first place. This is NOT to say that faithfulness to all aspects of the source material is the only way to approach a new take on an existing product; at least it wouldn’t be if the default deviation wasn’t to search out white faces to insert as the default race/ethnicity.

When the rich cultural overtones and influences aren’t respected and translated into the script and put forward by actors capable of the necessary range of emotions and connection, more often than not the end product is less interesting and less impactful than the original. Whiteness doesn’t automatically equal relatable but you’ll never convince some whi– *ahem* gatekeepers of that.

Death Note could’ve been a richly told tale translated for American audiences but this version didn’t pull it off – not even close. Wingard’s Death Note doesn’t make a very compelling case for why Light Turner is white nor does it do anything innovative to make the leap from being rooted in Asian culture and mysticism to translate in its new US setting. Wingard acted as those elements were core to the story premise and he was very, very wrong. I firmly believe the lack of connection is due heavily to all these missing elements resulting in Light Turner feeling wrong.

Since I’ve previously lost my mind about this type of story gutting and whitewashing, when the US live action Ghost in the Shell hit theaters, I’ll leave it at that…for now.

••

Death Note, staring Nat Wolff, Margaret Qualley, Keith Stanfield, Shea Whigham, Paul Nakauchi, and Willem Dafoe as Ryku, is available on Netfilx as of August 25, 2017.


 


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