Death Note (2017)
Director: Adam Wingard (2017)
Starring: Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield, Margaret Qualley
Find it: IMDb, Netflix!
Having never seen the original Japanese Death Note movies, or anime upon which it is based, I was more inclined to like this remake than most. I have enjoyed almost everything director Adam Wingard has done thus far (his through-the-motions Blair Witch reboot aside) and love the various bits of Death Note imagery I have seen pop up throughout my years on the Internet.
And Wingard's Americanised remake starts off well, wasting no time, with the mystical notebook literally falling from the sky to the feet of young Light Turner (Max Landis lookalike Wolff) in the very first scene. Not even ten minutes later, Light meets death god Ryuk (Jason Liles, with the voice and mo-cap face of Willem Dafoe), in a brilliantly chilling, fun scene. As the first death-by-note unfolds in a wonderfully gory Final Destination fashion, I found myself digging Death Note, and settling in for a good time.
And then, the rest of the movie. In a world in which Columbine and Sandy Hook happened (fuck you Alex Jones) and the threat of bitter, bullied loners becoming school shooters remains a clear and present danger, Light using Ryuk/the death note on bullies, teachers and classmates was never a viable option. Especially not with the majority of the cast white-Americanised, as they are here. And especially especially not with Wolff's unfortunate resemblance to a certain Aurora cinema shooter.* And so Light unleashes the power upon criminals, dictators and the FBI Most Wanted list, like an omnipotent version of the Punisher. After hooking up with crush Mia (Qualley), the pair create a pretentious alter ego for themselves, claiming anonymous responsibility for their crimes.
All of which would be fabulous if their behaviour felt in any way natural or plausible. Unfortunately, the writing consistently depicts the pair as winging-it amateur hour psychopaths, both enjoying their crimes way too much but never properly explaining why they bother to go after criminals. The weak dead mom bit doesn't count, and we're left wondering why they don't just go murder the bullies and classmates that piss them off daily, like the petty monsters they patently are. The writing can't settle on what it wants Light to be, so it flails between conflicted hero and murderous villain, not convincing in either department. And Mia - painted as the more evil of two evils - is even worse.
The bulk of the film is filled with an un-engaging game of cat and mouse between the idiot and a weirdo, Stanfield's masked, hooded detective 'L' jumping on tables, swatting shit onto the floor all the time (they really took the 'cat' part literally) and never stopping Light, even though he knows precisely who he is and what he is responsible for. The viewer is supposed to be conflicted in this battle between detective, criminal and criminal's girlfriend, and we are - but for the wrong reasons. I hated all three of them so much that I didn't want to see anyone succeed in getting what they wanted. Except, maybe, for Ryuk, who wants to ditch Light and give the book to someone who isn't a complete loser.
Frustrating flashes of Wingard's usual pizzazz keep the film at least watchable throughout. As previously mentioned, the first ten minutes are legitimately great, and there's a fun chase sequence during the back half, leading into a clever, flashy finale which re-ignites the flagging viewer interest. In a movie in which everyone else is terrible, Dafoe and Shea Wigham get all the good stuff, even if the former's time is mostly limited to eating apples and making threats.
And Ryuk looks awesome, glowering from the shadows and spookily observing all over Light's shoulder. But Ryuk has always looked awesome, and will continue to do so in the original movies and anime - all which would doubtlessly be a better use of one's time than this rushed, uneven, disappointing remake. Death Nope, thanks.
*Not Max Landis