Remakes are, and always have been, a staple of not just Hollywood cinema, but film history. Some rise above their previous source material, some don’t. There are few that feel as ill-conceived as Death Note, a poorly slapped together fan fiction film version of what should have been a strong morality tale.
Death Note is a property that in my mind has never had an accurate presentation. Having made it through about 10 episodes of the anime on Netflix, it’s not hard to see how directing an American remake of this story would be a challenge. There’s so much story to get through and characters to meet, that if you slip in one area, it’s like an avalanche. This under two hour film wants to cherry pick the “best” parts of th story to structure it’s narrative but they never gel, particularly because of undercooked characters.
One of the main issues that both the anime and the film have is that Light’s descent towards being godlike always feels rushed. Everyone understands that this is a story with supernatural elements, but if you don’t ground it in real character motivations and stakes, your story simply doesn’t work. Knowing that Light, in the anime, is a genius and bored with the expectations/his life, allows the audience at least some kind purchase with which to understand his reasoning for diving into serial killerdom so quickly. In this version, and as portrayed by Nat Wolff, we have nothing to grasp on to with regards to Light as a character. We see that he does homework for money, know his mom died, and has a crush on a girl. That’s…it? How the screenwriters thought they could build an entire film on this is truly strange.
Also laughable is Light’s choices. There’s absolutely no logic behind any of the decisions Light makes at the outset of this film. He gets the Death Note, makes two rather easy kills (a bully and his mom’s killer) and then a day later tells the girl he likes about the book. ARE. THEY. SERIOUS? This character barely knows how this thing works and it’s rules and he is already giving the secret away to this girl, he and the audience don’t know. There’s multiple times in this film that anyone with a brain or decent hearing would have found these two out, with as much and as loud as they talk about it.
Furthermore, there’s no sense of struggle or real moral issue with killing people. Light, and his accomplice Mia (Margaret Qualley), never kill anyone with any kind of connection or stakes to them. Even when Light’s father tries to stand up to him via a press conference, we only get a single scene of struggle between the two killers till the climax. They just kill evil people, and we don’t even get to see Light do any of the detective style work he does in the anime to get rid of the FBI agents, the film has Ryuk step in for some reason. Death Note is more happy to move on to ridiculous kills than meditate on how these godlike powers really affect these people. Just having your character “struggle” with killing people and being an average person doesn’t make him morally ambiguous, it makes him boring.
Aiding in making this film bland and boring is a script that scrubs the tale of any nuance or sense of place. Much has been made of the white washing of the story, and the movie actually misses a golden opportunity to do something interesting with L (a great Lakeith Stanfield) towards the end of the film, but Death Note does much more than white wash, it everything washes. Given our current cultural and political climate, it’s a tremendously missed opportunity to not analyze the entitlement or radicalization of white youth or at least understand the implications of it’s white serial killer and black detective. The lone Asian character of note is really window dressing.
Death Note, like other films, thinks that just because it shifts a story to America, that it will just inherently be great without doing the work to make it so. What was the point of setting the film in Seattle, as opposed to any other American city? Does the demographics, weather, city style, fame for housing several industry titans, make a difference? These are questions the movie doesn’t pose, visualize, or explore in any way that might be considered significant, and it’s a travesty. Death Note’s setting literally adds nothing to the story, and in doing so, actually detracts from it.
These are just the start of the problems of a movie manages to do almost everything worse than the previous iterations of the tale. Adam Wingard seems to think that he can rely on previous nostalgia to fill in the many, many blanks he presents us with, but his choices to make this film less than two hours skip past crucial points to drum up a sense of false momentum and ultimately fail.
And finally, what the fuck is the point of casting Willem Dafoe, who looks like a living Ryuk, if we never get to really see him?