[Note: This post contains minor spoilers. Updated 8/28/17.]
One of the criticisms that has been directed at Netflix’s numerous original series is that they sometimes feel needlessly drawn out to a dozen or more episodes, when roughly half of that number would have sufficed to tell the same story. This results in lots of sluggish mid-season wheel-spinning and aimless wandering through fruitless subplots, all with the evident goal of getting binge-watchers psychologically invested for the long haul. It’s the sunk cost fallacy as applied to pop culture consumption: A viewer who has devoted 12 hours to Season 1 is more likely to feel obligated to stick around for Season 2.
Netflix’s original horror feature Death Note—adapted from the manga series of the same name by writer Tsugumi Ohba and illustrator Takeshi Obata—has the opposite problem. It’s at least 12 hours of story crammed into 100 disjointed minutes that never allow a single plot beat to steep or simmer for even a moment. It charges through its story with the vaguely annoyed, half-assed attitude of an 7th-grade English student rushing through a presentation that they already know they’re going to fail. Much of the film has the unmistakable air of a slapdash assignment, where reductive boxes are dutifully checked to attest that, yes, this is a Death Note film, but without any regard for whether the assembled result makes a lick of sense.
It didn’t have to be that way, had Netflix at given Death Note the running time it needed to properly thrive. Obliged to not only Americanize Ohba’s epic-length comic series but also distill it down to less than two hours, the screenwriters—Jeremey Slater and brothers Charley and Vlas Parlapanides—were essentially set up to fail. It’s plausible that no one could have turned a Death Note adaptation with those parameters into a success, but the involvement of Slater, who scratched out the dog-awful The Lazarus Effect, certainly didn’t help.
The Death Note manga and its anime adaptation are deeply embedded in Japanese folk and religious traditions, but an American version of the story wasn’t necessarily a non-starter. No one ever lobbed credible whitewashing accusations at The Ring or The Departed, after all, and they actually managed to outshine their Japanese and Hong Kong antecedents, respectively. Picking up a story and moving it whole cloth to a different time, place, or cultural context is standard high-concept gimmicky. Shakespeare companies are the undisputed masters of this sort of milieu swapping, but Japanese director Akira Kurosawa might be cinema’s most famous practitioner. (He’s even been on both ends of this phenomenon, adapting Western stories and then being adapted in the West himself.) Still, any adaptation or remake needs to bring something original to the table: an approach or perspective that enriches the source material, or at least takes it in a heretofore unexplored direction. This is especially the case when it comes to non-white source material that is adapted into a white context, given the colonial-adjacent history of white culture swiping any exploitable non-white bauble that catches its eye.
Netflix’s Death Note is a big fat failure in this respect, as it awkwardly attempts to chart a middle way that comes off as lazy rather than sensitive. Ironically, the film ultimately doesn’t go far enough in its Americanization efforts, inexplicably retaining the manga’s Japanese death spirit (shinigami) villain and then re-embellishing the transplanted story with Japanese trimmings. Conversely, the Seattle setting just feels like a hideously generic “American city,” lacking any sense of regional character, economic history, or demographic identity. Death Note is accordingly the worst of all possible worlds: a white film that distractingly reminds the viewer of its non-white origins at every turn, while also refusing to take advantage of its cosmopolitan American setting to do something original with Ohba’s story.
In its favor, Death Note doesn’t dick around with unnecessary narrative ballast: A few minutes into the film, emo-bookish high school student Light (Matt Wolff) has come into possession of the titular artifact, an ancient journal inscribed with dozens of rules and a long list of names. (The book literally falls out of the sky, a cheeky, parsimonious gesture that puts the relic in Light’s hands without the need for a convoluted backstory.) After a few minutes more, the death demon Ryuk (voiced by Willem Dafoe and physically performed by Jason Liles) appears and explains to how the Death Note works. If Light writes a person’s name in the book while visualizing their face, that individual will die. What’s more, if Light specifies the manner of their death, it will be fulfilled to the letter. He tests out this power by ordering the decapitation of a bully, and in short order a Rube Goldberg chain of freak occurrences separates said bully’s head from his body, Final Destination-style.
Superficially, Death Note’s premise is the stuff of innumerable fantasy-horror tales about Mephistophelean compacts and the tragic hubris of humanity. What’s distinctive about the story's approach to these tropes is that it enthusiastically embraces its ludicrous high concept and quickly expands its scale beyond mere acts of petty adolescent revenge. After snuffing out the mobster who killed his mother in a hit-and-run, Light turns his attention from the personal to the societal. Rather naively letting his cheerleader crush Mia (Margaret Qualley) in on his secret, the pair scour the Internet for information on fugitive murderers, untouchable war criminals, and other assorted global nasties to add to the Death Note. Ryuk—who lurks about, invisible to everyone but Light—seems mildly taken aback by this do-gooder ambition, but also wickedly pleased at the obvious potential for a long, hard fall once Light’s self-righteous methods inevitably implode.
Rather than simply allowing the epidemic of accidents and suicides afflicting the world’s Bad Guys to remain a mystery, Light and Mia somewhat questionably devise a mythology for their vigilantism. The Death Note, they eventually discover, isn’t just a means to perform push-button murder, but a tool for straight-up mind control. By writing elaborate instructions into the book, they can dictate a victim’s behavior in minute detail up to the moment of their death. This includes, for example, forcing victims to write Japanese messages on the wall in their own blood, crediting their deaths to an entity named “Kira”. (The in-universe arbitrariness of this scheme, allegedly devised by Light to throw authorities off the scent, has an unpleasant whiff of retro white privilege about it. Need a scapegoat? Why not the devious Japanese?) In what seems like a matter of months—the film is weirdly ambiguous on this score, but it plainly takes place over less than a single school year—Kira-worshiping cults spring up around the world as violent crime plummets and evildoers adjust to the reality that they could drop dead at any moment.
At this point the film swerves into a X-Files-tinged duel of wits between Light and an eccentric government agent known simply as “L” (Lakeith Stanfield). A twitchy, quasi-psychic investigator who never appears to sleep and sustains himself solely on candy, L seems to have nigh-unlimited authority to direct the FBI, CIA, NSA, Interpol, and other agencies. He’s convinced that Kira is an ordinary person, and through Sherlockian deduction, he narrows the assassin’s location to Seattle. There his inter-agency task force absorbs the quixotic Kira investigation of local police detective James Turner (Shea Whigham), who just happens to be Light’s father. This connection might be laughably contrived—The man hunting for Kira is unwittingly investigating his own son!—but preposterous writing is the least of Death Note’s problems.
Even this Cliff Notes version of the original manga’s plot has a substantial number of moving parts, but Death Note is so ruthlessly flattened into a feature-length story that it feels ruinously rushed and jerry-rigged. The film is not especially hard to follow, but that’s because it speeds right past momentous plot points and papers over complex mythology with a kind of contemptuous inattentiveness. The viewer is hard-pressed to care because Wingard plainly doesn’t care. Incredibly, the film makes these dubious choices so that it can spend more precious screen time on, say, the unconvincing relationship drama between Light and Mia, or on what feels like a five-minute foot chase through Seattle’s back alleys. Long after Death Note ends, one is left wanting more details about, say, the sinister book’s previous owners through the centuries, or about L’s X-Men-ish origin as a government-created intellectual super-weapon. In the moment, however, the viewer is simply too shell-shocked by the heedless pace of Death Note’s plot to ruminate on its more compelling suggestions of a deeper mythos.
Not one story element in Death Note is given the space it needs to emerge and evolve organically. The film simply barrels forward from one incident to the next, never stopping for anything so trivial as constructing drama or establishing mood. In particular, Light’s change from an ordinary petulant teenager into a global vigilante with a god complex happens so fast, it barely feels like a transition at all. This sort of severe narrative compression isn’t just artless, but also frustrating, as it’s painfully apparent how dramatically intriguing this arc could be if it played out over three or four hour-long episodes, rather than a three-minute montage.
Interesting characters probably couldn’t save such a dashed-off muddle, but it surely doesn’t help matters that Death Note is saddled with a pair of uncharismatic leads. Wolff conveys a snotty, smarter-than-thou resentfulness from his first appearance on screen, which disastrously undercuts the ostensible tragedy of a cringing nerd’s transformation into a sanctimonious Grim Reaper. What’s more, Wolff has zero chemistry with Qualley. She portrays Mia as a prickly, manipulative bitch who turns into an outright sociopath once she gets a taste for blood. The blame for this falls primarily on the screenwriters, however, and it’s difficult to envision how Qualley could have salvaged such an unpleasant, emasculating cliché.
It falls on the supporting characters to lend Death Note some marginal color and pathos, and the performers succeed well enough in this respect. Whigham is in typically fine form in a role that plays to his strengths as a character actor; his widowed police detective is all aggrieved exhaustion with an undercurrent of righteous indignation. Stanfield is blessed with the most intriguing character in L, but the film’s pace and indifference mean that the actor is obliged to reduce him to a shallow collection of pseudo-autistic tics. Appropriately enough for his demonic character, Dafoe is the only performer who walks away totally unscathed from Death Note. This is partly because his presence is limited to his purring voice and devilish facial expressions, but it’s also because the casting is damn-near perfect. Sensibly eschewing any clumsy Japanese gestures in his performance, Dafoe portrays Ryuk as one-half the delighted, goading toadie to Light’s schoolyard bully, and one-half Faustian puppet-master who’s so assured in his absolute power that he never needs to proclaim it.
Dafoe’s total ownership of the performance raises the question of why a Japanese demon has been retained as the antagonist, as opposed to some region-appropriate substitute: Duwamish Native American spirit, Volga Germano-Russian trickster god, or even a skeletal, scythe-wielding Death straight out of a black metal album cover. Death Note just plops the source material’s original villain into an urban Pacific Northwest setting without any visible effort to explain or justify it. (Seattle’s not-insignificant Japanese-American population was interned in WWII, as they were everywhere; why not use that angle somehow?) This, as much as anything, gives the film a negligent dimension, as though Wingard and the screenwriters couldn’t be bothered to finish translating the story into an American context. If Death Note is a genuine example of whitewashing—and it’s not clear that it is—it’s a depressingly lax sort whitewashing that draws attention to its own vacuousness and limited imagination.
As cinema, Wingard’s film is competent enough, and even formally sumptuous at times with respect to design, lighting, and composition. The colors pop in the film's more evocative locations: a winter high school dance; a neon-drenched Tokyo BDSM club; a decrepit, abandoned orphanage. Ryuk’s creature design is marvelously unnerving stuff, a canny blend of costuming, CGI, and old-school camera trickery. Wingard evades potentially phony effects shots through judicious use of blocking, shadow, and shallow focus, rendering Ryuk more menacing, given that the viewer can never quite get a clear look at him. In short, Death Note isn’t an amateurish train wreck; it's made by people who know how to make movies. However, like Wingard’s recent misconceived Blair Witch sequel, it face plants embarrassingly. The filmmakers reveal a poor understanding of the source material, or least an unwillingness to commit to the time, expense, and effort it would take to relocate and adapt Ohba’s comic effectively. This is doubly frustrating, given that Wingard has demonstrated he is capable of more: His 2011 feature You’re Next was an acidic satire of bourgeois overconfidence and sexist assumptions, and a damn fun survival horror film to boot.
Given the film’s myriad other problems, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Death Note never gets around to engaging with the original story’s nuanced themes of morality, power, and punishment, let alone its political implications in a contemporary world of extrajudicial drone strikes. The film’s limited interest in such matters is expressed through sparse world-building like messianic pro-Kira graffiti, or through petty teen melodrama that has all the philosophical sobriety of a slogan on a MMA T-shirt. It's the sort of film that signals the righteousness of Light’s moral reservations in the second act by having Mia repeatedly call him a pussy with unconcealed contemptuousness. Wingard’s film is more inept than outright stupid, but it sure thinks its audience is dumb.