The Life of David Gale
Director : Alan Parker
Screenplay : Charles Randolph
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2003
Stars : Kevin Spacey (Dr. David Gale), Kate Winslet (Bitsey Bloom), Laura Linney (Constance Hallaway), Gabriel Mann (Zack), Matt Craven (Dusty), Rhona Mitra (Berlin), Leon Rippy (Braxton Belyeu), Jim Beaver (Duke Grover)
The Life of David Gale is being slammed pretty hard by a lot of critics, mostly because they want it be something it is not. As a tract on the unfeasible nature of the death penalty in America, it is an utter failure, a would-be liberal whitewash that ends up painting anti-death penalty advocates as near-crazed zealots who believe that virtually anything, no matter how horrific, is justified for their cause (one has to wonder if the vitriol some liberals feel toward this film is because it makes the anti-death penalty advocates seem so much like anti-abortion advocates). On the other hand, if you watch it as a mystery story that uses the debate over capital punishment as its background, it’s a serviceable thriller, albeit one with some serious logic gaps and narrative loopholes.
Continuing his phase of “martyr” roles in films such as Pay It Forward (2000) and K-PAX (2001), Kevin Spacey stars as the titular David Gale, a brilliant but somewhat conceited University of Texas philosophy professor who also heads an anti-capital punishment group called DeathWatch. Ironic, then, that he lands on death row himself having been convicted in several courts of the brutal rape and murder by suffocation of his fellow advocate and university professor, Constance Hallaway (Laura Linney).
The film is structured as a series of flashbacks as Gale grants three two-hour interviews to a News Magazine reporter, the unfortunately named Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet), who arrives in Texas from New York with an obnoxious intern (Gabriel Mann) in tow. With only four days to go before his execution, Gale tells Bitsey his story, a sad tale in which he went from being a coveted professor to an unemployed alcoholic. His troubles began when he made the bad decision to have a one-time fling at a party with a graduate student (Rhona Mitra), who then turned around and accused him of rape. Gale’s life is one steady descent, and in this way the film plays as the depressing story of promise squandered. Yet, as Gale tells Bitsey, the whole purpose for this last-minute interview is so he can ensure that his life has some kind of meaning after he’s dead.
There’s meaning here, alright, but first-time screenwriter Charles Randolph keeps burying it beneath more and more red herrings and odd coincidences. Clearly more interested in narrative trickery than political statements, Randolph keeps piling it on, adding twists and turns and major revelations such as a character who suddenly reveals that she has cancer and is dying. Some of this is ham-handed in the worst way, particularly the character of Dusty (Matt Craven), an associate of Gale and Constance’s who prowls around in the dark following Bitsey for no reason other than to give the movie a mysterious character who lurks in shadows.
The film takes a turn for the darker when someone leaves a videotape that depicts part of Constance’s murder in Bitsey’s hotel room. This snippet of snuff film becomes a key element in the story, although it’s hard not to think that some kind of line is being pushed when Bitsey, in full Nancy Drew mode, breaks the case by reenacting Constance’s death herself, complete with handcuffs and a plastic bag taped over her head. The film’s director, Alan Parker, has worked in shocking and historically transgressive material before, including the blunt-force sadism of Midnight Express (1978) and the revisionist look at the civil rights movement in Mississippi Burning (1988). Parker likes punching buttons, and though he is an outspoken opponent of the death penalty, one wonders if he knew that The Life of David Gale would end up infuriating liberals, rather than conservatives.
This doesn’t mean that he doesn’t take potshots at the Right. The depiction of the Texas governor, described as a man “in touch with his inner frat-boy,” is so clearly aimed at George W. Bush that it loses any dramatic power and feels more like a bad episode of Saturday Night Live gone political. Texas itself is also ridiculed throughout, depicted as a place with “more churches than Starbucks” and filled with slack-jawed yokels who say things like, “That a whole different kettle of crawdads.” Whether you agree or not with the death penalty and the fact that Texas executes more prisoners than just about every other state combined, the film’s condescending attitude and limited view of a complex place is borderline infuriating.
Running well over two hours, The Life of David Gale ultimately begins to drag, even as the pieces of the puzzle start coming together. The film saves the final revelation for the last shot, which in its own way is a powerfully cynical moment that, even if you saw it coming, still has an unnerving quality. However, once this final revelation is integrated with the rest of the film, one quickly realizes that it has all been a sham and that the entire reason for Gale being interviewed by Bitsey has, well, no purpose. Like its phantom stand against the death penalty, the entire narrative structure of David Gale turns out to be an elaborate display with no inner logic or coherence. It’s the very definition of flash and no substance.
Copyright © 2003 James Kendrick