Movie Review : Death Note (2017)
* spoilers *
The original Death Note is an iconic 37 episodes long anime that gained a cult following online over the last decade. It's a philosophically packed show that explores questions of ethics, justice and legacy. It's smart, somewhat unpredictable and adorably Japanese. It became such a worldwide phenomenon that an American distribution company (in this case Netflix), bought the right and had it turned into a live-action movie. Exciting, isn't it? Well, America doesn't exactly have a great track record at that. Anybody even remembers Spike Lee's painful remake of seminal Korean movie Oldboy? My point exactly. I'm afraid Adam Wingard's adaptation of Death Note isn't much better. Well, it's a little better. But it's going to make fans of the show wince in disappointment.
Death Note (the movie) doesn't have quite the same story as Death Note (the anime). They are similar, yet events were changed to matched the radically different tone it was given. So, Light (played by the unlikable Nat Wolff) notices a book falling from the sky one day. That book belongs to a death god name Ryuk (voiced by the awesomely cast Willem Dafoe) and possesses the ability of killing anyone who's name is mentioned in it. All you have to do is write down the name of the person (you have to have seen his/her face) and the way you wish them to die. Light is both terrified and fascinated by the book, but it improves his life. It helps him get a girlfriend (Margaret Qualley) and avenge his mother's death among others. It's all fun and games until an elite detective named L. (Lakeith Stanfield) starts taking interest in him.
There is very little of what makes Death Note (the anime) interesting in this movie. See, the death note (the book) is supposed to be a prop for the intellectual and ethical struggle between Light and L.. It's a tool of absolute justice that confers God-like powers to its owner. That enables Light to develop a tyrannical alter ego named Kira, who wishes to change the world by executing every criminal. It's compelling because it never passes judgement and requires the audience to side with whoever they believe is right. This is great, right?
Well, there's none of that in the movie. Light is depicted as a victim from the get-go. Inside the first fifteen minutes, he gets punches in the face at school, unfairly put in detention by a reptilian principal and the audience learns that his mother died. Even when he starts using the death note, he is constantly torn between the sadistic desires of his girlfriend and a demon that has WAY more implied power than in the anime. The screenwriting team of Death Note (the movie) REALLY want you to side with Light and I have no idea why. He's not supposed to be inherently likable.
So, if there is no intellectual struggle between young men who are basically equal, what is there to Death Note (the movie)? More victimization. Once Light starts playing with the death note, he kills a whopping 400 people all over the world : criminals, terrorists, death row prisoners, people who seemingly were perverts in a Tokyo night club, etc. Now that he's being investigated, all Light wants is to go back to his prior life. It was all a mistake. He shouldn't have played with occult forces, blah, blah, fucking blah. What a pussy. Not only Light is cliché as hell, he rejects control over his situation because he can't deal with the consequences of his actions. Death Note (the anime)'s Light was a complete dick compared to his move counterpart but he embraced who he chose to be. Death Note (the movie) is so freakin' over the top emo sometimes, it'll make you feel like you're trapped in a Dashboard Confessional record.
Now, I want to address the accusations of whitewashing this movie faced in the media. Let me be clear: whitewashing is a thing and it's a fucking shame that it happens. The new adaptation of Ghost in the Shell is a great example. It a movie located in Japan, characters all have Japanese names and are all played by American actors. But Death Note (the movie) is not whitewashed. It's a localized adaptation. The story has been relocated in Seattle, there are white, black and Asian characters and there are allusions to the original material all over it. If Adam Wingard had been any nicer, he would've set the story in Japan and hired Japanese actors but there wouldn't have been much point to adapting the material if he did that. Whitewashing is a convenient accusation to throw around whenever there's an American adaptation of anything, but this isn't the case with Death Note (the movie).
The main problem with Death Note (the movie) is that it was written by someone who was only quickly explained the concept. It doesn't have anything to do with the original and what it offers is considerably less interesting: an pseudo-goth allegory for white privilege. The good white boy can kill 400 foreigners and rightfully want to get away with it while the black detective loses his mind trying to stop him and doesn't get anywhere. It's frustrating. One is clearly the criminal here and the other is clearly trying to put him behind bars (L. even says it in the film) and justice (the concept the heart of the anime) is promptly ignored for emotional reward. And that soft of bullshit angers me. I'm not any more politically righteous than any of you, but Death Note (the movie) is really trying to sell you a lemon here. It's not a good movie. It's not exactly boring either, but it's disappointing and frustrating if you're familiar with the show *.
* That said, Lakeith Stanfield was great in it. He NAILED L.'s creepy mannerism and added his own dimension to the character. If there's one saving grace to this train wreck of a movie, it's him.