Ah, The Outsider. Where to begin?
The further we get into Netflix’s stable of original content, the more anxious I get about the kind of work the company is choosing to produce. Bright was a mess. So was The Cloverfield Paradox. But The Outsider, directed by Martin Zandvliet, is in a league of its own.
In case Netflix’s latest offering has escaped your radar, here’s a rundown of the plot: Jared Leto joins the yakuza. Obviously, the premise raised some red flags. Many took to Twitter to voice their displeasure at yet another white savior movie, calling the centering of a film about Asian culture around a white lead a form of whitewashing, and yet another missed opportunity to cast an Asian or Asian American lead. Others noted that there’s no precedent for the yakuza accepting a white American into their ranks, and that the title of “outsider” is misleading when the yakuza portray themselves as outsiders to begin with.
On the flip side of the coin, people have countered that there’s nothing wrong with it, noting that the film’s very title is The Outsider, and that the character was written from the start as a white American man. Both points are technically true, but there’s no argument that can be made in favor of The Outsider when one watches the actual movie. It’s culturally insensitive—it might as well be the poster child for the ways the film industry continues to fail in terms of representation—and even if it weren’t, there’s no escaping the fact that it’s simply a bad movie.
The Outsider, or “the Jared Leto yakuza movie,” as it’s been dubbed, gives its audience absolutely no reason to care about its protagonist. Leto plays Nick, an ex-soldier—and dodging court martial, as it turns out—who murders his way through 1950s Japan in order to prove his loyalty to/rise through the ranks of the yakuza. It’s a chalkboard-colored slog without any emotional stakes. Granted, there are a few bursts of neon slotted in expressly for the purpose of “looking cool,” which is roughly what the movie seems to be going for on the whole. There’s also: a sumo-wrestling sequence, endless shots of body tattoos, and other things you’d expect that one annoying kid in your class to cite after coming back from a semester of study abroad. And hilariously enough, in the sequence in which Nick gets his own yakuza tattoos, it’s revealed that he got them in order to impress a girl, with no knowledge of what the images actually mean.
The rest of the movie fails to rise above that bar as well. Every line of dialogue is delivered as stoically as possible—except, of course, for the lines allotted to the one female character in the entire affair, who immediately falls into bed with Nick and, despite protesting that she can take care of herself, is quickly threatened with rape by other characters and turned into a damsel in distress. Everyone who isn’t Nick is an impotent prop, and Nick is barely a character.
The only thing about The Outsider that even comes close to cracking the oppressive shell it’s encased in is Tadanobu Asano’s performance as Kiyoshi, the man responsible for bringing Leto into the yakuza. Asano, known for Ichi the Killer and Zatoichi, is ultimately also there to prop Leto up, but does so well with what little he’s given that it makes it harder not to wonder why The Outsider wasn’t made starring an actor of Asian descent. It would be more resonant—and just as fitting for the title—as a story about an Asian American being forced to confront their heritage, and allow room for all of the other characters to be more than set dressing.
The fact that the filmmakers have no interest in Japanese culture beyond stripping it for visual cues is never more apparent than in how the film ignores its specific (and somewhat ironic) context of post-occupation Japan. There are faint hints of Japan’s ongoing Westernization, but that’s it. And once again, it’s a decision made for the sake of aesthetics rather than any deeper artistic value or with any cultural awareness. It’s all the more disappointing, then, that The Outsider is so ugly. Even in some of the most critically maligned of Netflix’s original output thus far I’ve found something to like, but The Outsider is bafflingly bad on every level.
It even has one of the hallmarks of bad films: a disclaimer or two addressing something certain to be problematic in an effort to absolve it of guilt. The recent Ghost in the Shell did this by making its main character, played by Scarlett Johansson, a Japanese woman transplanted into a white body, as well as in The Greatest Showman, which had an actual critic character name everything wrong with the whole production before saying that anyone with a heart would call it a triumph. This gambit never works. The cover-up only makes the mistake more obvious. In The Outsider, it comes in the form of Rory Cochrane as an American company boss who slings racist epithets until Leto caves in his skull. It feels like a strange echo of how representation is and isn’t acknowledged in film: We’ve gotten to a point where, if it’s explicit, it’s unacceptable, but more insidious instances are still allowed and sometimes considered forgivable.
About halfway through the film, I took to Google to see if I could puzzle out the series of decisions that led to the movie being made. It was a Blacklist script (written by Andrew Baldwin), and, crazily enough, once had the legendary Takashi Miike attached to direct, with Tom Hardy as the star. I have to wonder what this movie would have looked like under Miike’s direction. Maybe there would have been a reason for the story to center on a white man, or more weight given to the Japanese characters. At the very least, it wouldn’t have been so damn terrible.