Adam Wingard's career began with micro-budgeted shockers like Pop Skull and A Horrible Way to Die. These were scrappy, weird movies executed with a ton of style, plus a flair for finding fascinating performances (AJ Bowen is intimidatingly good in Horrible Way). Then came You’re Next and The Guest - slightly bigger genre plays that were wacky (Next being a rather side-splitting take on the siege picture) while still brimming with the same sense of visual panache (The Guest acting as Wingard’s synth-laden “T-800 meets Michael Myers” riff). With assists from consummate screenwriting collaborator Simon Barrett, the young maven seemed poised to be the next big thing in pulp fiction; a guy taking tried/true tropes and remolding them in his own image.
Blair Witch was a step backwards. The creative duo’s belated sequel to the found footage classic played more like an ill-advised remake than a continuation of a familiar story. Not only did Blair Witch suck the color out of this flamboyant artist, it leaned on clichés instead of reinventing them in Wingard's trademark mumblegore fashion. To call Blair Witch “disappointing” is a gross understatement. Not only was it a calamitous attempt at crossing over into the mainstream, the picture seemed like an utter betrayal of everything that made the budding maverick’s output fascinating in the first place.
Now Wingard’s returned to the redux arena with another project that, on paper, seems like an even more bewildering miscalculation: an adaptation of Japanese manga and film series, Death Note, about two sociopathic high school lovers (Nat Wolff and Margaret Qualley) bestowed with a magical book (imagine the Necronimicon just falling from the sky) that comes complete with a spiky wraith named Ryuk (voiced with Green Goblin aplomb by Willem Dafoe). Any name the troubled kids scribble into the tome dies, in the exact manner they prescribe. You want to decapitate a bully? Cool. How about taking down an entire nightclub of criminals? Even better. As the duo’s deeds grow in legend, an eccentric genius investigator who goes by “L” (Lakeith Stanfield) traverses the globe in order to hunt them down. While the premise is undoubtedly an intriguing one to tackle in a live-action setting, Wingard and his cast have spent the days leading up to Death Note’s Netflix release batting away accusations of whitewashing, with Stanfield recently labeling the criticisms a "fundamental misunderstanding.”
Let's get something out of the way: Adam Wingard’s Death Note is totally whitewashed. Like, it's the very definition of “whitewashed”, on par with Scarlett Johansson’s recent turn in the American Ghost in the Shell adaptation. Even if you try and defend the picture’s casting by pointing out that Stanfield is essentially its black hero, that doesn't forgive the fact that Wingard (along with screenwriters Jeremy Slater and the Parlapanides Brothers) have taken a Tokyo story and set it in Seattle, with two white kids as its new primary sources of evil. That said, Death Note is also a literal return to form for its director - a re-embracement of his poppy style that amalgamates with the source to create a number of gorgeously goofy moments you wish were being projected onto a silver screen. This is a '90s horror take on comic book filmmaking, as high school goths kiss during rainstorms, before "L" stalks abrasively lit corridors of the aforementioned discotheque. The young genre auteur also doesn't skimp on the splatter, as heads are bisected and FBI agents leap from high buildings to explosive demises below.
There's an intriguing subtext injected (perhaps inadvertently) into Death Note by transplanting the mystically murderous events into a white Pacific Northwest suburb and having its teenage residents become wielders of a diabolical force that reaches across borders. Suddenly, we're dealing with a Final Destination take on global intervention, as the kids are scouring the Internet for terrorists and drug cartels to take out - jotting the names of perceived international evildoers into the ancient text without a thought as to the economic or sociopolitical mechanizations that helped embolden and empower these sects (not to mention their hypothetical successors). While the movie is no doubt using their acts as a jumping off point to pose overarching BIG questions in a "what would you do with this sort of power?" sense, we as an audience are now confronted with two teens who view themselves as literal white saviors. The fact that it takes a black man (constantly donning a hoodie and hiding his face, no less) to try and stop them is an equally captivating sight, as a fabled person of color must rise up and attempt to put an end to the tyrannical overreach of Caucasian influence.
While we're on the topic of "L", it should be noted that Stanfield steals the entirety of Death Note out from under his white counterparts. The gangly performer brings vitality to every scene he appears in, embracing the character’s eccentricities while never letting them fully define the international investigator's existence. Stanfield has the most wonderful eyes; constantly in motion as "L" processes every environment and individual he encounters. The guy's an absolute superstar in the making – handsome like a leading man, but totally in possession of a character actor's spirit. It'll be a thrill to watch him continue to grow and shine as an actor as his career progresses.
Mind you, none of this is an excuse for the Netflix Original's abhorrent casting practices. They’re merely observations regarding the byproducts of this new Death Note ripping a piece of pulp out of the culture that produced it and retrofitting the work into another's pop cinema grammar. Unfortunately, none of the underlying commentary can make up for the fact that Wingard's film is condensing elements of both a long-running print and film series into a single 100-minute Cliff's Notes version. This leads to some jagged storytelling decisions that are distracting – such as the movie climaxing at a prom that's never really mentioned until we're in the gymnasium, slow dancing as a diversion while another moniker is added to the journal. However, this abridging raises the biggest question of all: why didn't Netflix choose to make this their next series? The wealth of source material and heady narrative conceits could (and obviously has, in other countries and mediums) been stretched into hours of serialized storytelling. Nevertheless, as a standalone feature, this iteration of Death Note has enough style and ambition to mark it as a rather diverting success, despite the glaringly problematic elements at its core.