Netflix’s ‘The Outsider’ offers problematic, lifeless storytelling

The Outsider

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Grade: 2.5/5.0

Following the critical disappointment of 2017’s “Death Note” live-action remake, Netflix’s newest attempt to appropriate Japanese culture finds legs in the form of “The Outsider” directed by Martin Zandvliet and starring Jared Leto. “The Outsider” lacks originality and purpose, leaving it part of Netflix’s growing legacy of flops.

The film opens on ex-GI Nick Lowell serving time in a Japanese prison in the 1950s. He saves the life of fellow inmate and yakuza member Kiyoshi (Tadanobu Asano), prompting Kiyoshi to offer him a place in the gang after they both get out of prison. From here, Nick quickly transforms into a killing machine, quickly rising through the ranks of the yakuza. Along the way he gets Kiyoshi’s sister Miyu (Shioli Kutsuna) — the only girl in all of Japan who isn’t a stripper — pregnant, and he kills the only other two white people in the movie in spectacularly gruesome fashion.

The film drags on for two hours, filling its runtime with dull unsaturated shots of Leto punctuated with brief scenes of gratuitous violence and gore. Yet, they’re all in vain — any attempts at suspense are sullied by completely undercooked characters.

When making movies about Japan, American filmmakers have some compulsive need to rack their brains to find a way to make a Japanese narrative about a boring white guy. “The Outsider” is no exception. Luckily for us, however, Leto hardly even has a speaking role in the film. While he is the film’s main character and occupies the vast majority of screen time, that time is spent primarily on moody close-ups of his face while he listens to others speak. Yet it’s likely that he’s just brooding over his lack of defined characterization. The few lines he did manage to choke out are as strained and clunky as one expects from Letos’ wax-doll performance in the film.

In fact, Nick is merely a bootleg version of Ryan Gosling’s Driver from the 2011 film “Drive.” Stylistically and narratively the films actually have more than a few things in common. Both follow a fairly standard narrative, following a complicated, soft-spoken criminal who’s in over his head.

Gosling, however, has a charismatic presence on screen — he has an expressiveness that mitigates the lack of characterization a character could suffer from little dialogue. Leto’s gaunt facial features and slicked-back hair, on the other hand, put forward a hostile intensity that isn’t allayed by his acting or the script. Nick represents the sulky, hypermasculine protagonist that third-rate noir films are littered with — the ones society has collectively got bored with and moved on from.

Inserting a white man into the lead role in a film set in Japan and about Japanese culture is inherently problematic, but what is so insulting about this movie in particular, is the purposeless of it from a narrative standpoint. Other than occasionally being berated for not being able to speak Japanese (which makes no sense for someone who has spent the better part of a decade in Japanese prison) or being called an outsider a handful of times, this choice never impacts the plot, and it never hampers his ascension to the head of his yakuza family. If the movie had taken the time, an in-depth exploration of the dynamics between the Japanese and an ex-American soldier after World War II could have had interesting narrative value. Instead, Leto is inserted into an entirely conventional and uncreative yakuza narrative with no attention to the significance of the choices being made.

Overall, the film takes as much life from the audience as Leto’s character does on screen. There are many unbelievable facets of this movie that the audience is just expected to accept — including the idea that Miyu awakening to Leto sitting in a corner of her room staring at her isn’t every woman’s nightmare and, perhaps most shocking of all, the fact that someone wrote the following line into the script: “Your skin is so soft. Should I lick it?”

“The Outsider” is currently available for streaming on Netflix.

Contact Kate Tinney at [email protected].