Talk about your inaccurate translations...
Directed by Adam Wingard
Written by Charlie Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides, and Jeremy Slater
With Nat Wolff (Light Turner), Willem Dafoe/Jason Liles (Ryuk), Margaret Qualley (Mia Sutton), Shea Whigham (James Turner), and Lakeith Stanfield (L)
The single-syllable question that has never once stopped echoing in my head, ever since I first heard about Netflix' Americanized, live-action reiteration of Death Note, was plainly and simply, "Why?" My God, why! Why: spend millions of dollars to exploit a brand name known mostly only to nerds, like me, who wouldn't be pleased no matter how it turned out? Why: in an age where TV is ascendant, take a story that thrived best in its native serial formats, and seal it into an airless 100 minute box? Why: bother trying at all to adapt something that's already available in a fantastic English language dub, and was never, ever going to be topped by the C-list scenarists and B-list filmmaker who took the project on? Who can say? Maybe it was just perpetually-up-and-coming director Adam Wingard's desire to burnish his reputation as a wrecker of established stories. In the wake of his poorly-received Blair Witch, and in anticipation of his in-production remake of I Saw the Devil, at least that theory fits the facts. (And, boy, are we enthused, or what?)
But, no, it probably wasn't deliberate sabotage. Nobody actively sets out to destroy something—though if Wingard came out tomorrow, and said that Death Note '17 was intended as a work of long-form film criticism, built to demonstrate every last way a remake could possibly go wrong, I don't know how you could show he was lying, at least not by pointing at the movie he actually made. But realistically we know the final product is simply the result of all the ordinary causes: nobody involved understood what was so appealing about the original, and Wingard, flummoxed, decided to at least serve it up with a minute dash of grindhouse ambition. And guess what? Practically the only interesting and novel thing about Wingard's adaptation is the amped-up gore and Final Destination-ness that accrues to its supernatural kills. It's not exactly nothing. But, Lord, it certainly isn't much.
For the uninitiated, I should probably elaborate upon what the hell it is I've been talking about for the past 500 words—though, obviously, I was exaggerating tremendously when I said that only an anime nerd could respond to the brand name, insofar as Death Note is quite possibly the most popular, widely-seen, and widely-praised cartoon Japan ever produced. But either way, a primer: the original television series, based on the comic and airing from 2006 to 2007, told the story of Light Yagami, an obnoxiously precocious Japanese high school senior who came into possession of that titular Death Note, this being a notebook from the realm of the Gods of Death, both constrained and empowered by a very long list of magical rules. The first and second rules of the Death Note, however, sum up the most basic thrust of the show: "1. The human whose name is written in this note shall die," and "2. This note will not take effect unless the writer has the person's face in their mind when writing his/her name." And so Light, given the power to kill anybody he wants—so long as he has a name, a face, a piece of the notebook, and something to write with—kills everybody he wants, and with great enthusiasm, in a messianic bid to scour all evildoers from the face of the Earth and thus create the perfect society, doing so secretly under the title "Kira," the self-styled God of the New World. In the meantime, however, Light finds himself opposed by the dwindling forces of the status quo, personified by the greatest detective in the world, an eccentric teenage prodigy who (luckily) goes by a codename, "L."
It gets indescribably more complicated than that, of course, and this is the purest pleasure of Death Note's Original Recipe, the incredibly byzantine ways that Light and L match wits over the course of the series. But it is not the only pleasure; in fact, it's far from the only pleasure. And Death Note '17, if we were to assume it is a work of cruel, parodic criticism, does an outright amazing job of underlining even the subtlest qualities of the original, through the simple expedient of having essentially no quality of its own.
So: our American Death Note begins with Light Turner, a somewhat-bright but otherwise-unexceptional white kid in Seattle, and, minutes in, American Death Note already has one strike against it. (That brings it up, so, yes, I will weigh in very briefly on the "whitewashing" controversy. The good folks who like social justice could pick better battlegrounds: would Asian-Americans want to be represented by Light Yagami, who, if transplanted in full, could only come off to the unwitting viewer as a blood libel-level stereotype?)
Well, anyway, White Light is handed the Death Note by one Ryuk, a God of Death, and is goaded into using it (that's strike two—Yagami needed no persuasion) to kill his high school bully (strike three...). Next, he uses the notebook to slay his mother's murderer (you're already out, batter), and soon he becomes so intoxicated with his power that he shows it off, thereby impressing his would-be cheerleader girlfriend, Mia Sutton. (And, at this point, our frustrated umpire snatches Death Note's bat right out of its hands, and caves its skull in with it.) Light and Mia, in between sessions of post-murder coitus, use the Note to reshape the world in more-or-less the way we've become accustomed to, but, once again, L enters the picture to capture the magical killer who's taken on the title "Kira," and, gosh, does our world's greatest detective bungle the job.
There is almost nothing good about Death Note '17, and even less that is correct: I freely admit that it's entirely impossible for me to judge it on its individual merits, but I can try, and even once you get past everything that's terribly wrong about it (Light as a whiny nerd; Light as a sex-driven idiot, or, really, sexual at all; Light reconceived with the same backstory as the fucking Batman; etc.), it's still not a likeable version of what it apparently wants to be, which is a vaguely 80s-vibed supernatural horror-fantasy-romance that takes place in a high school, and moves its pair of horny cardboard cutouts around all sorts of mostly-prefab plot points with a numbing indifference to character, motivation, theme, setting, and even logic itself. (Imagine a gender-swapped Heathers; now imagine that it is bad.)
You can point to a very few individual elements that work. No one will accuse Nat Wolff of being good, but he has something close to the right look for a Caucasian mock-up of Light Yagami. Better yet, Willem Defoe is ideally cast as the gravelly, mocking voice of Ryuk, whilst Ryuk himself is a surprisingly excellent creation—a mostly-practical effect given expressive life by Jason Liles, and whom Wingard chooses to film in chiaroscuro darkness or in out-of-focus backgrounds, intensifying the otherworldly creepiness of the death-god in the precise opposite of the way that (if we're being fair) Death Note '06 tended to normalize him, as just another character. (Not that there was much chance of that happening this time around: this Ryuk's barely an "element" in the first place.) Meanwhile, I'll give it enough credit to at least recognize that it was trying to do something interesting with the show's concept of multiple Kiras, and this could have taken it far away from the show's narrative while still being true to its spirit—if it had been successful, anyway, which it is not.
And that's pretty much the exhaustive list of everything worthwhile about Wingard's effort, while the bad stacks up like unattended garbage, difficult to quantify at all. Some key aspects of the original are outright abandoned—they're the lucky ones. Others are just smashed to pieces and jammed into the story without cleverness or craft, or even intelligence: it's not a failure of adaptation alone, for example, when this Death Note recreates the scene that ignites the great war between Light and L. In Death Note '06, L held a press conference to goad Kira into killing him, if he could, and Light, making perhaps his only unforgivable strategic mistake of the entire series, took him up on the offer, only for L to reveal that he'd employed a stand-in, and dared him to try again without a name or a face, thus proving that whatever Kira's power, he wasn't omnipotent. In Death Note '17, L takes the podium personally, still challenges Kira to kill him, and when Kira doesn't even try, the smartest boy in the world declares victory anyway, "deducing" the exact same facts his animated counterpart did before him, only with data not close to complete enough to actually support his "genius" conclusions.
And while it only occasionally bottoms out this tremendously hard, the whole film is just like that: rushed-through, muddled-diarrhea versions of famous scenes, as adapted by writers who couldn't crack 150 on the LSAT, plus all that feasibly-interesting new material, strangled by the old stuff, and by general insipidity. L, especially, is damned near vestigial: the primary conflict, such as it is, rests in the relationship between Light and Mia, and their diverging approaches to the Note, and for all its flaws, you can at least call it different. But L is conceived exactly the same, and still somehow sucks the hardest. It sounds insane, what with L being Death Note's most popular character, but there's an astoundingly solid argument that Death Note '17 would've done nothing but benefit from his absence. It's impossible to say if Lakeith Stanfield, in some better world, might have been a good L. But he's surely atrocious in ours, absolutely destroyed in a perfect storm of bad filmmaking: blocking that turns his autistic-cartoon mannerisms into pure affectation, a script that demands he ultimately become a howling, gun-waving street vigilante, and direction that I suppose must've gone as far as "your character enjoys candy," but clearly included little else.
Given this, there's surely no good counter-argument for L's actual presence. Plotwise, he does practically nothing for the first half of the movie, which has zero interest in exploring either his prodigious investigative skills or his querulous but lively dynamic with the police. (Let alone his dynamic with Light—and so out goes the social satire, too, even though costume designer Emma Potter, possibly the single person here thinking about how to transplant Death Note to a contemporary American setting in any remotely coherent way, certainly tries. And bless her heart, it's worth noting that Stanfield's L does at least make for a dynamite still image, in his facemask and hoodie.)
By the second half, however, Light has already effectively confessed, leaving L with literally nothing to do. It tears the story's heart right out of its chest. It wasn't beating anyway, but the replacement story on offer is not nearly compelling enough serve its purpose, either, and I belatedly realize that calling Death Note '17 "rushed" is actually a misleading description of its overall effect. Because overall, what it comes off as is just outrageously inefficient, wasting all sorts of time, doing all sorts of things that feel like nothing, and doing a lot of other things that are nothing. Ironically, Death Note The Thirteen Hour Show had the stronger pace of the two, somehow getting to several plot points ten or twenty minutes earlier than Death Note The 100 Minute Film. (E.g., by the time Light Yagami's already committed his first murder in the show, the movie has barely finished dicking around with slow-motion shots of cheerleaders!)
It takes Wingard forever to clear the board for the conflict his script even pretends to care about. But, I'll do my best to be fair to it: fully 85 minutes in, Death Note '17 finally makes one tentative gesture towards the high-stakes games of mental chess the premise was actually designed for. Unfortunately, this might leave an even sourer aftertaste—because by this point you've been so thoroughly disgusted by what you've seen that, paradoxically, you'd probably just prefer it to stay that way. It has been, after all, a film of almost flawless badness. But now, right before the credits roll, you realize that maybe they did come, in the end, to a rudimentary understanding of what made Death Note tick—and, in spite of this understanding, they made the movie they made anyway, simply because they weren't smart enough to make anything else.