Films can be pretty. They don’t have to — some of the best dramatic films are just plays staged on the silver screen — but it helps. Films can show the passion and love of the creators inside them. Critics like to ignore the smiles and laughs of the staff, but filmmaking is still one of the most passionate activities in the field of art. And most importantly, films can be meaningless because they can be a spectacle.
It is easy to mock Death Note (2017) for its bastardizations of the plot and incoherent characterizations. But what I’m more fascinated by is how spectacular the whole film is. The film is competent in the technical sense: most of these shots are beautiful and well-composed. Willem DeFoe’s Ryuk is nothing but a silly mask, but he is hidden just enough to make him look menacing. There is a lot of technical craft going on here that are worth talking about.
But they also betray a lack of meaning. These shots have no purpose except to be stylish and pretty. That is why I find the film utterly fascinating. It is one of the most meaningless films in how it is shot.
At first, I never really got that impression. The establishing shot of the whole film is a typical shot of Seattle to remind us that, yes, this is an American film. It is a cliche to show such a shot. I guess the director knew that and that’s why instead of the Statue of Liberty it’s the Space Needle.
But I began having suspicions when the film begins its mandatory establishing montage. This is a film about American teens, so there are scenes of teenagers getting out of the bus and raising their hands to answer questions. Typical stuff, but this sequence has dutch angles and weird cuts and crossfades. There is a need to make this film look hip as ever.
And by the way, this shot and the next few are all shot in slow-motion.
In the middle of the montage, the audience has to remember that America has crime so the film cuts to this short scene. What makes this scene so special is that everything is so organized and balanced. Your focal point is the cop opening the door to the car and you gradually move to the right. Everyone is framed just right. The woman on the right is in that perfect picture moment thanks to how the two cars just section her off.
It is a damn pretty shot that lasts barely a second.
We also have the typical football scene because this is America. The montage hits you hard that this is about America, so the shots could have been lazy. But instead, we have a rather pretty shot of football players staring at each other as the camera focuses on the front players.
And the film goes on. Here is a crossfade that shows aloofness and detachment. This is your protagonist, Light Turner. He does other kids’ homework because he is bullied or something. This is how the film introduces its central character and it’s lame. But behind that lameness, the creators try to hide it with visuals.
That is what the film is doing in a nutshell. It knows it is lame and it tries to be cool by going over the top with its visuals. And to a certain extent, it succeeds.
It succeeds because it is spectacle.
It wakes people up from the tedium of cliches we are accustomed to expect.
It also can hide cliches from plain sight.
Like a firework, it distracts you from what is behind the scenes. How I sequenced was just lame, but it did the job damn well. That’s what Death Note did.
And it doesn’t matter if the spectacle makes sense at all. It is about getting the visceral emotions out of you. The first two deaths in Death Note seem to be inspired by Final Destination, but the second death in particular is worth analyzing.
Nothing about it makes any coherent sense.
The first death makes some sort of sense because you see the seemingly unconnected events of daily life snowball into the death of the character. The second death does the same thing, but the scene is first covered in a putrid orange filter that makes it hard to see what is even going on. And the scene likes to fade in and disconnect the flow of the events. Is there any story purpose? No, in fact, it is difficult to make out how the character died.
But it sure is spectacular. There’s the music stopping whenever the scene fades in, there’s the overt sound effects of everything because it’s all intense, and then the gore. The gore where the guy starts sprouting blood from his throat.
It is visceral but nonsense. And nonsense may aptly describe Death Note in a nutshell.
This film does have its priorities set straight. It doesn’t care if the plot is bonkers or if it suffers from continuity errors. It wants to engage the audience with any trick possible.
It wants to shock and make you feel like you’re right into the world without giving you time to think what’s going on. There’s no time to nitpick, but there is enough time to take in the beautiful visuals.
Presentation is key to making it sell. It doesn’t matter if there is a defined setting or even rules; you don’t even have the time to really take in what the rules of the Death Note are. But hey, there’s a pretty scene depicting what is probably Tokyo.
And this is probably what romantic tension is in the film. You don’t need to develop characters if you can show shots that do that for you. The worst parts of the film are when they try to deliver exposition and tension through dialog.
The best parts of the film are when they have nothing to say. There’s nothing to tell, so it shows. What does it show exactly? Nothing. There’s nothing meaningful in this upside down shot except it looks cool.
And the blue neon lights with the techno feel of the soundtrack make it feel cyberpunk-ish and cool. It doesn’t matter if there’s no hacking involved. It feels and looks cool.
That’s why a good portion of this film has been color corrected to blue, the color of the cyberpunk era. They actually did a pretty good job making the palette work and not feel cheap. It isn’t distracting and feels natural.
But its purpose is obvious. It wants to give off the vibe that it is contemporary, so it goes for a cool color palette.
But because it does these pretty meaningless shots too often, we aren’t able to differentiate what is a meaningful shot anymore. Fans of Death Note will understand that this shot of L grabbing sweets is straight out of the manga. His addiction to candy is one of his characterization traits; this is however easy to miss because there’s so many gorgeous shots in the film.
Meaningful shots become meaningless if they are stylized the same way as the other shots. It is all a blur of pretty images and nothing concrete.
Everything is threatening or exciting. It is a rollercoaster without a break or a pause. Nothing to accentuate the quiet time or rising action. Everything is just tense.
And when it ends, it ends with a loud bang. It is a confetti of colors and lights. It’s a good film and that’s what people want out of the film.
It’s not great. Even audiences who like it know it ain’t the best film of all time. But it is entertaining because every frame is lovely to look at.
It is a glorious mess of excess. Everything is over the top and everything means nothing and something at the same time. The film wants to overwhelm you with everything it’s got.
And I don’t mean it that it is evil in doing so. That’s what bestselling films in modern American cinema are: an illusion that leaves you in tears or excitement. You don’t question the illusion of what you have seen; you embrace the insanity of it. This is what visual storytelling has always been about.
It has always been about entertainment. And in American cinema, entertainment is about an excess of everything.
Death Note is a spectacle. Everything about it is gloriously dumb, but it is also majestic in its presentation. It is itself a microcosm of the contemporary American cinema’s trends and exemplifies the bests and worsts of today’s films.
But while it is an embodiment of American cinema, its spectacle is a parody of its own spectacle. It devours itself like an ouroboros of American pop culture and it never stops. It thinks like a Zack Snyder film and laughs at itself. That’s why people can describe it as camp and enjoyable.
And the film doesn’t take liberties from the manga at all; it views the source material intensively through an American cinema lens. It makes everything in the manga come out as bombastic and spectacular while adding Americanisms to make sure the content “shine” spectacularly.
Behind the scenes, it is an awful romp. It is everything wrong with American cinema today. It shows a stagnating industry plagued with narcissism and ethnocentrism.
And yet, the film works. It is enjoyable in a dumb way and it can be described with an Andy Warhol quote:
“If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.”
The surface of the film is spectacle. It is trash and it is beautiful. Death Note is a pretty garbage that we will all eat up because it’s so damn appealing.