Netflix Presents Willem Dafoe Power Hour (Death Note & What Happened To Monday)

Instead of a Grab Bag & Review, this week I will be doing three reviews! Wow. That’s a whole lot of reviewing, and a whole lot of movies.

But, full admission, two of these movies are Netflix movies (the two I’ll be covering today). So I didn’t have to go to the theater to see them (and neither do you! If you want to give them a watch before reading this review, and you haven’t, stop right now and hop on over to Netflix). Both of them are genre pieces, and both of them rely on Willem Dafoe’s star power to draw people in while actually ultimately featuring very little Willem Dafoe. So, if you’re here for a reflection on the awesome power of Willem Dafoe, look elsewhere.

Though, actually, I guess we can start with Willem Dafoe. Willem is a fantastic actor, and genre fare is frankly exactly where I think he should be. He’s got such a great presence, a unique but flexible voice, and one of the most important elements for crazy genre stuff: it always looks like he’s having a blast. Genre stuff can be heady, and can make for fantastic movies, but more often than not it has at least a little taste for the silly, and it’s when the movie takes itself too utterly seriously that it begins to fall apart.

Death Note falls prey to this. What Happened to Monday doesn’t.

At a party a few weeks ago, while discussing how I hadn’t gotten around to seeing Valarian yet I was trying to explain to two friends of a friend what the hell a B-Movie was (after I’d said Beeson is a great B-Movie director). “It’s like if a studio gives a great director enough money to go to town but not quite enough money that they [the studio] care how the movie turns out,” I finally said, which I think is a pretty good definition. The next night, I watched What Happened to Monday, and was struck by what a fantastic example of a B-Movie it is. Unfortunately the golden age of the B-Movie appears to be behind us. As costs for movies shoot up studio control feels more and more omnipresent, and films like the Marvel movies or even Star Wars, which should be idiosyncratic romps, feel highly manufactured. What Happened to Monday escapes this trap (though not, I suspect, by an honest lack of studio involvement).

What Happened to Monday has a great B-Movie premise: in a future with a one child law, Willem Dafoe has seven daughters (all Noomi Rapace) whom he names after the day of the week. On the day belonging to them they assume the identity “Karen Settman” and are allowed outside. By the time the movie begins, things are already going south: Monday disappears and it seems likely the government is on the up-and-up in regards to the seven sibling deal.

Why is it a successful B-Movie? It’s premise is ridiculous, and its world feels pretty ridiculous while the characters treat it seriously. It’s distant, and strange, but not too distant or too strange, and it feels dirty in the way the best sci-fi movies do. The tone and feel remind me of Total Recall, Minority Report, and even a dash of Children of Men in its rainy city scenes, but it importantly only feels like those movies – its greatest triumph in an age of constant remakes and homages is that it is its own thing. So many “B-Movies” now feel like a send up to B-Movies without actually embracing the things that made B-Movies B-Movies. What Happened to Monday is exciting, shocking, has little regard for its characters and doesn’t mind killing them (this is, I absolutely argue, an important part of B-Movies). It’s focus starts small and swoops outward to reveal the world, but only the bits we need to know (at one point early in the movie this is literalized with a camera movement starting on a window and then sliding way way out to reveal an enormous overgrown CGI city). If it’s not really about anything, well, isn’t that keeping with the great B-Movies of the 70s and 80s as well?

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Death Note spins out in the utterly opposite direction. Instead of not being an homage but capturing something essential about the spirit of what it wants to be, Death Note is an adaptation that utterly misses the spirit of its original. Let’s get first things out of the way first: there was no conceivable universe in which Death Note was going to be a great movie. Nevermind the whitewashing accusations. Actually, definitely mind them: not only is the white washing horrendous in a system that absolutely refuses to cast people of color, it also was done at the expense of the story. Death Note is, in its original iteration, an inherently Japanese story. Does that mean that it can’t speak to non-Japan people? Of course not. It doesn’t even mean that it can’t be translated to be a story set in America, but it will be a very different story, and the original story is so good the way it is (and the location so essential to the story) the location shift makes us ask “why?” and the movie fails to give a satisfying answer.

The movie botches pretty much everything else, as well. Death Note, the show (and I’m sure manga, but while I’m a “original fan” I guess I can’t call myself an “original original fan”) focuses on Light, a genius high school student who picks up a Death Note after Ryuk, a god of death, drops it to the human world because he is bored. The gimmick is simple: anyone whose name is written in the book will die (there are some additional rules). It doesn’t sound like a setup for an intense thriller, but it is, as Light is soon met with his match in the form of L, another super genius particularly inept at catching high profile and tricky criminals.

The original Death Note is all about this mind battle between good and evil. And what’s important in the original is that for all of L’s weirdness, Light is absolutely a villain – a classical anti-villain maybe even more deeply evil than Walter White. If, in the original show, Light never found the Death Note, he would have probably gone on to be a successful policeman or banker or professor or what have you (policeman, for sure). But the Death Note didn’t corrupt Light. Light just finds a new way to express himself in the Death Note. Much like social media only accentuates our already inborn follies, so too does the Death Note bring out something rancid that was already inside Light. In making Light slowly corrupted by the Death Note in the movie, the movie fails to understand what Light’s core character was, and turns him into instead into a weak character who sort of waffles his way through a series of horrific murders. Murders shouldn’t be something you waffle your way through. Walter White, once he breaks bad, is bad. Light in Netflix’s adaptation never quite gets there, which deadens his character to the point of nothingness. It also looks a whole lot like a CW show.

Willem Dafoe is pretty great at Ryuk, though.

What Happened to Monday gets a solid 7.5 out of 10 identical sisters.

Death Note gets a 2.5 out of 10 apples.

Recommended Reading:

  • If you’ve never watched the original Death Note, it’s honestly more than worth your time. As I said, it doesn’t necessarily seem like a thriller, but every episode is gripping, and though you’d think Light doesn’t have a match because… you know, he can murder anyone… the show does a remarkable job of constantly putting him in a corner.
  • Luc Besson is truly a great B-Movie film maker, and though Fifth Element will always be close to my heart, Leon the Professional is the movie I think of more often. Maybe because I sometimes confuse Gary Oldman’s performance in that movie with Willem Dafoe.
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