I think part of the reason it’s so much harder to really analyze a perfect film than a perfectly shitty one is that a great film leaves you wondering how they did it. What geniuses had the decision to write that score, to edit in this style, to write that character in such a way, to interpret them so fully? I can’t imagine how much time I’ve spent wringing my hands at Annette Bening in 20th Century Women, trying to understand Dorothea Fields as a creation, as a conscious work of art by way of multiple collaborators as well as the actress playing her, amidst a film that feels utterly human and alive, and without seams in any way. I bring up this film here because I had this thought watching Adam Wingard’s disgusting, dull take on Death Note only a few nights ago. You may be asking “Why is it that both of your Date Night pieces have been centered around demonstrably monstrous acts of garbage?” and I say wait a minute, we’ve seen good things. One day I’ll talk about Shin Godzilla. But that’s just me postponing the inevitable. Tommy and I, and our very good friend David, sat down on the first of September and decided to watch a train wreck that was even worse than we could have imagined. It hasn’t just been whitewashed, but striped of all the source material’s morality and mythology, about as far removed as one could be from anything in the original series while vaguely needing to use certain character names and still actually having a death note, and Americanized in the worst possible way. But it steals baldly from other films and makes it central character completely unbearable while everyone else is vaguely more interesting and doomed to the sidelines of the story. No one wanted this film, necessarily, but is it too much to ask that it be good?
The first immediate example we get of the film’s selective pilfering of its Japanese source material is that our central character is named Light Turner. It’s not in any way a typical American name, especially for white boys with dye-blond hair, but because the source material starred a dude named Light, why not? They couldn’t let that central character stay Japanese, though, because this is America, so it has to be about a white dude and his white girlfriend trying to dodge the world’s greatest detective, a young black man who is still called “L”. The white soon-to-be girlfriend is named Mia, and we know that she is Serious and Not Like Other Girls Or Whatever because we see her looking Hardcore and Bored and Over It during cheerleading practice, a brunette in a sea of blondes, who finally just starts smoking rather than letting the Other Girls catapult her in the air. This is probably because they wouldn’t hurl her into the sun itself, which is the only thing Hardcore enough for her to join. And we know Light is Hardcore and Over It but Still Has Morals because we see him doing another student’s homework and later trying to save another student from the most college-graduate-looking motherfuckers who ever decided to teleport from the 90’s to now and bully someone.
It’s almost too easy to tear down this shambling mess of a film. Wingard shoots Ryuk as though the filmmakers either couldn’t afford to make him look presentable or were just embarrassed to look at him. Light is a terribly bland protagonist, made even blander by the far more interesting sociopathic tendencies of said soon-to-be girlfriend Mia and the truly bizarre spectacle of Wingard’s remodeled L. This version of L is at least someone interesting to watch, even if it’s in such a conventional way as to have almost no resemblance to the original version of the character. Mia, on the other hand, is only altered insofar as her obsession with Light is really just an obsession with the death note itself, and a desire to kill off people more indiscriminately than he does. There’s something deeply uncomfortable about how Mia and Ryuk are eventually aligned as the villains of the piece for lacking a moral compass, especially when Light’s feels superficially arbitrary and utterly dull, and even moreso given that Mia’s eventual betrayal of Light feels like some version of “bitches be crazy”, but both are still the most captivating characters on the screen. If Ryuk has almost no real reason to be there after his introduction, Willem Dafoe’s self-satisfied line readings make the character a welcome presence. That this character egs on Light to commit his first killings was perhaps the biggest sticking point to David early on, given the manga version’s role as an excited but impartial audience surrogate more than anything else, but his presence is still entertaining. Dafoe’s reading of the line “Humans are so interesting!”, one of the few moments where Ryuk got an actual close-up, was also the only actual chill I got during the whole 100 minutes, though credit must partially be given to my shock that any line from the manga – let alone one of its best, in the early going – even made it into the film.
My previous interactions with the Death Note media empire is having gotten partway through the manga and the anime dub in early high school, losing interest a little while after the death of a major character, though not necessarily because that character died. Maybe it felt like the end of the series, or maybe I just straight up lost interest, or moved on to a different property. That being said, I still remember Death Note and its characters fairly well, and certainly well enough to know how butchered this abominable film was. It’s astonishing how much Wingard tries to alter these characters away from any resemblance to their source material, but it brings up what strikes me as the largest question I have about this film, and all the grossest politics and connotations I can think of surrounding the terms “whitewashing” and “Americanizing”. Of course America’s version of Death Note had to star a white boy in the lead role, because Hollywood can’t just have a leading character of color for no reason at all. Of course he had to be saddled with a faux, crummy version of “morals” with a faux-tragic backstory behind his killings while his girlfriend is giving the depravity that made the original so noteworthy and framed as the eventual Big Bad for it. Mia Sutton is perhaps the only character Death Note has going for itself, a genuine female sociopath on film who barely seems motivated by her hubby-in-crime and is more than willing to ditch him once he gets cold feet. Apparently Wingard credits Mia as having more of Original Light’s traits instead of Misa Amane’s, which makes sense to think about but speaks plenty about Wingard’s seeming disinterest in actually adapting his source material. I kept thinking about The Hateful Eight’s Daisy Domergue, featuring another case of villainous characters whose only point of agreement is that the lone lady of the bunch is the worst of them all, though there her crimes are left mainly vague, her threats treated like bluffs once she has the room to say them rather than getting smacked around by her walrus-moustached captor. It’s the film’s most toxic element, one that I’m not convinced Jennifer Jason Leigh’s performance makes the right decisions about in portraying her. The Hateful Eight is also a much better film than Death Note – what film isn’t? – albeit with its own, significant flaws, but in Death Note Mia’s crimes and the crimes of her allies and enemies are all equally defined, because the film is so awful it needs her amorality if only to give the viewer someone compelling to root for, as my squad saw it, because Margaret Qualley commits to her character and makes us sad to see her go. I don’t mean to imply that Qualley is a better actress than Leigh, nor is her performance necessarily stronger in these respective films. But sometimes mere competence in a shitty film is easier to like than a commendable misfire in an uneven one, and Qualley’s work is one of the few umbrellas we can run under in this heaving shitstorm of a film.
I truly don’t know how to engage with L, who seems like the most conspicuous victim of Wingard’s rewrites. LaKeith Stanfield is clearly giving his all to the performance, and if you told me he was the only person on set who’d ever read the manga I’d believe you in a heartbeat. But all the intrigue of his work, the intensity it achieves in certain moments, is drowned out in how overly mannered this character is. Repeatedly L is seen sloppily eating gummy bears ascribed with ingredients that enhance thinking capabilities, rather than strawberry shortcake because it’s fucking delicious, that’s why. Twitchy behaviors are augmented by the character’s complete lack of chill, rather than the naturally super-intelligent, laid-back L the manga gave us, one in terrible physical shape and complete physically incompetence. Here, L gets a chase scene by car and by foot, and brandishes a firearm. Here, L gets a traveling Victorian set to be imported into the middle of the San Diego Police Department’s office area. At least he still gets to keep his own brand of amorality, perfectly content as he is to use some criminals as bait to see where “Kira” is based, but he’s not the savvy liar and manipulator detective of yore. This character is conventionally compelling, but perhaps the most emblematic case of Wingard’s seeming desire to write a Death Note film that doesn’t actually resemble any previous Death Noteproperty. Who knows why this character was cast with a black actor in a shocking white version of San Diego – or even if there was a “reason”, and Wingard just liked Stanfield’s ideas about the character – but the spectacle of him being placed in a chokehold by SDPD chief Light’s Dad was easily the grossest thing Death Notehad in store. I can’t help but wonder what Stanfield really saw in this opportunity, how much he got out of it, and what the disparity is for having highlight roles in the best and worst horror films of 2017.
And then there’s Light, remixed from a type-A, grade A model student into an angsty loner who has literally nothing going for him but a wonky dye job and being lucky enough to get a handheld killing machine. Putting a hat on the guy makes him instantly the blandest man alive, and he as much as anyone else is shorn of the traits that made the character such an interesting protagonist. Yes, Mia gets so many of Light Yagami’s traits, but can Light Turner have anything going for him? Can he not nearly shit himself once Ryuk (in such a bitchy spectacle of an arrival) storms onto the scene? Can he not have a motivation so forgettably stitched on the film all but abandons it twenty minutes in, and can his morals actually be interestingly complicated instead of bland, Americanly contrived? Nat Wolff’s Light, possibly the worst performance of the year, is such a guileless goon that his last-act transformation into a criminal who’s actually capable of planning out a long con to save his own life and kill one of his enemies is easily the least believable part of the film. It’s astonishing how much the want of having Evan Peters and Emma Roberts in the lead roles is present in how Light is styled and in how much Margaret Qualley just fucking looks like a less actively bitchy version of Emma Roberts. There’s even a little card that says “Normal People Scare Me” in the American Horror Story font in Light’s locker, like some emo kid in 2011, which gets to the heart of this character’s deep mischaracterization. Why make this kid into a Tate Langdon-type who’s so blatantly angry at the world it’s honestly shocking his father takes as long as he does to realize his son is a fucking mass murderer? How is it in any way a bold, difficult statement that the valedictorian can be a sociopath, that kids with ostensibly no real problems can also want to end the world themselves? There’s a lot I didn’t like about the fourth season of AHS but at least it gave us an emblem of corrupted white, heterosexual male privilege and prejudice that this film just can’t recognize, or won’t.
A funny, somewhat poignant, and very quick moment in Okja sees a character flash a newly made tattoo on his arm that says “Translation is Sacred”. Death Note is not just an abominable act of translation, but of adaptation, of fidelity to a source material’s characters and themes. Outside of its vaguely compelling supporting cast, a lot of Death Note feels haphazardly cobbled together from a multitude of sources and bad ideas all meant on making the film more palatable to an audience that only wanted this film because the source material was so rich, most notably that killings in the Death Note seem to be primarily carried out by Final Destination, Rube Goldberg spectacle-type accidents, rather than simple, mundane accidents. Why make a Death Note film if you’re not going to make it resemble Death Note at all? It feels late in the game to say that I’m not fundamentally against molding source material to suit an adaptation, especially with something as dense as Death Note into a feature film under two hours. But there’s not a single alteration that this film makes to the material that helps it in any conceivable way, no small high point worth the heaps of garbage you have to sift through to get it. It’s not so much a misfire as a willful rejection of any sharp edges or idiosyncrasies that made the original property the hit that it became. It’s also, hopefully, the kind of misfire that kills a hoped-for sequel dead in its tracks. If there’s one thing we can do to reckon with the fact that this shambling corpse of a film exists, the best thing we as a viewing audience and as people who want adaptations of ambitious, international properties can shout from the rooftops that hypnotized FBI agents are leaping off of like synchronized divers. We liked them for a reason, and if you shear off that reason to be more appealing, all you’re left with is a boring white boy nattering on about his schemes in a hospital bed, outshone by a demon barely in focus, and failing in every way to live up to that demon’s last, great line. In the world of Adam Wingard’s Death Note, humans aren’t interesting. They’re cardboard cutouts of characters that aren’t tarnished by association, but shine a little brighter in comparison. You couldn’t ask for a less ambitious take on this property, no one did, but we got in anyways, and if no one will bother to learn from it, then all we can do with this maddening pile of shit is heave it straight into the sun and hope it burns into an even greater state of nothingness than the film has achieved just by existing in this neutered state