Film Review – Death Note
Earlier this year, I reviewed the new Ghost in the Shell (2017). In it, I discussed the issue of Scarlett Johansson playing the lead role, and how it was yet another example of Hollywood’s long history of casting white actors in roles meant for people of color.
Here are a few snippets from that review:
“Stories are not strapped to their country of origin, and that’s what makes storytelling so compelling. Stories can change and evolve, and can be seen from many different points of view. Is the story of Romeo and Juliet only allowed to portray the world of 16th century England?…
…The best remakes or adaptations take the source material as a point of inspiration, and builds upon that foundation to create their own identity. That’s why The Magnificent Seven (1960) is a good remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954), or why The Departed (2006) is a good remake of Infernal Affairs (2002) out of Hong Kong.”
I point this out because Death Note (2017) has faced similar backlash regarding its so-called “white-washing” controversy. With a screenplay by Charley Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides, and Jeremy Slater – with Adam Wingard directing – the film is an American remake of the Japanese manga, which itself had been adapted into an animated television show and a number of live action pictures in Japan. After seeing the Japanese version and this new Netflix release, I found that much of the racial criticism thrown toward the American version was unfounded.
It goes back to the idea of stories being flexible enough to be reinterpreted from various perspectives. What Wingard and his team did was remake the story from their viewpoint. The setting was changed, the style was approached differently – from the cinematography to the score – and the characters were molded to have their own unique personalities. There’s nothing wrong with that. Just because the story was taken from Japanese origins does not automatically make this version bad. Ghost in the Shell took environments, character designs, scenes, dialogue and even specific camera angles and simply repeated it. The main difference was Scarlett Johansson, who was cast not for narrative purposes but to sell tickets. Here, the premise is the same but everything has been redone so that it can stand on its own. This is not new, and America is not the only country that does this. Should we scorn Akira Kurosawa’s brilliant Throne of Blood (1957) because it’s a based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth? Should the Korean The Good the Bad the Weird (2008) face backlash because it was highly inspired by Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)?
The answer to these questions is: of course not. “White washing” is bred through an archaic belief that only white movie stars can draw American audiences to theaters, which is stupid. But that should not hinder filmmakers from telling stories with their own personal twist injected in. Death Note adapted a story where Ghost in the Shell adapted a culture. In fact, the storm surrounding Death Note is all for naught, given that it is not very good. I’m even a bit shocked that Wingard, who helmed the well received You’re Next (2011) and The Guest (2014), would hand in a product that is so below his standards. I would even go so far as to say that the quality comes back around, where what we get is so ridiculous that the absurdity becomes the entertainment.
Let’s be honest, we can’t really take a plot seriously when it starts off with a magical notebook dropping out of the sky and into our protagonist’s lap. If that weren’t enough, the magical notebook is actually a death warrant, where the holder writes a person’s name and that person suddenly dies however the author wishes them to. Want that bully from school to be beheaded? Just jot it down in the notebook. Want that criminal to accidentally step in front of oncoming traffic? All you need is a pen and some imagination.
That’s the position given to Light Turner (Nat Wolff), a high school outcast. Truth be told, the premise lends to some intriguing philosophical questions. If you had the power of God, where you can control the fate of anyone and everyone in the world, how would you use it? Would you use it for the betterment of others, or for your own selfish goals? These are big ideas, and it’s those questions that initially drew me in. The temptation to kill and get away with it must be overwhelming, which would explain the appearance of the demon Ryuk (Willem Dafoe). With glowing red eyes and spikes growing out of his back, Ryuk acts as the little devil on Light’s shoulder, prodding him to write more names into the notebook.
On a technical level, the production has an appealing glossy aesthetic. Wingard’s direction (along with David Tattersall’s camerawork) fills night scenes with bright neon lights. Wingard sets a conversation between Light and his love interest Mia (Margaret Qualley) next to a store window for no other reason than to allow the neon blues and greens to reflect off of their faces. It’s no mystery that Wingard is highly influenced by the look and sound of the 80s and 90s. Atticus Ross and Leopold Ross’ synth score reminds us of the work of Tangerine Dream or John Carpenter. The old school/less is more approach also applies whenever Ryuk comes on screen. Instead of showing Ryuk in his full glory, Wingard opts to bath him in shadow, often allowing only his silhouette and red eyes to be observable. Willem Dafoe was an excellent choice to voice the demon, once again showcasing his skill at playing villainous characters.
But despite how well made it is, Death Note can’t escape the fact that it is utterly ludicrous. Instead of going down the more natural horror road, the narrative takes a left turn and becomes a half cooked crime thriller. Light adopts the persona of “Kira,” an angel of death that comes for any person that may do wrong to others. As time moves on, Kira turns into a worldwide sensation. How does Light determine who is bad? He hacks into the local police department’s computer system and pulls up criminal records. How exactly is he able to accomplish this?
The plot holes come fast and furious. Instead of keeping the notebook a secret, Light blabs about it to Mia, even though they barely know each other. Does knowing that her classmate is responsible for the rise of questionable deaths disturb her? No. In fact, this knowledge actually turns Mia on, as though this nerdy kid has suddenly become the hot bad boy in school. I guess writing poetry or love letters is too old fashioned for romance in the millennial age.
The only person who appears to understand what kind of movie he’s in is Lakeith Stanfield, playing the cyber detective known as L. With a mask covering his face, L is skilled at tracking down anybody in the world, including the killer known as Kira. Hired by authorities (that’s right, the police here are so incompetent that they need the services of a vigilante) L becomes obsessed with revealing Kira’s identity. He goes so far as to hold a press conference (vigilantes can hold press conferences?) in an attempt to draw Kira/Light out of hiding. Look at Stanfield’s performance: his scientific yet monosyllabic speech pattern, the way he gorges himself on candy, or how he hops into a squat when everyone else is sitting down. Stanfield is clearly going for a broad caricature, and I mean that as a compliment. Stanfield is too talented to do this by accident, and I sense that the physical comedy is done intentionally – he’s having fun with the character.
If you like your movies dumb, then Death Note might have something for you. Although I fully recognize its many flaws, the goofiness is juxtaposed with an energy that I can’t help but get into. Not every movie needs to be smart, thought provoking, or even coherent. What can I say? A part of me hated it, but the other half kinda dug it.