The Life of David Gale

Starring:
  • Kevin Spacey as Jesus... Again
  • Kate Winslet Running For David Gale's Life
  • Laura Linney Looking Like an Austin Burnout

 

Directed by Alan Parker's Interpretation of American Politics "I admit it. K-Pax sucked big time. But I don't think it merits fifteen to twenty. I only got probation for Pay It Forward and it was a lot worse."
Oh Those Wacky Liberals! What Will They Do Next?

For purposes regarding my course load and a part-time job I've taken on, I've been thinking about the death penalty lately. I'm studying and working in a state that hasn't executed anyone since the early sixties yet has staged two rather prolific and horrific capital murder cases with guilty verdicts in the past six months. Opponents of capital punishment fear a potential end of the no-death-for-a-death streak in such a conservative part of the country. The state of Kansas is so concerned about this subject that a moratorium has been introduced into the Legislature. There's a lot to think about on this subject: The main concern is about the purpose of taking a life of a killer to compensate the victim. That always brings up a whole array of moral and religious issues. For someone like me, it seems that there's little to deter a person who's so irrational that they want to murder. Would the death penalty make them rethink their act? I kind of doubt it since their logic is so off-kilter to begin with. Then, I think about the victim's family. If my sister or parents or one of my friends were murdered, would I not want the perpetrator to suffer the same way? But another murder wouldn't bring that loved one back or would it just bring closure? I haven't even talked about the millions of dollars that are spent on appeals and lawyers by both prosecutor offices, state investigator's, Public Defender's Office....

Such an expansive subject yet the previous paragraph contains more thoughtful reflection than the entire 2 hours and twenty minutes of The Life of David Gale. Alan Parker's film, almost from the beginning, seems to give up on the notion of adding anything more to the cinematic dialogue on the U.S. death penalty and works into turning the subject into a conventional plot twist. That in itself seems like a pretty amazing feat, but then one has to observe all of the talent and potential that was wasted in taking one of the most controversial and divisive issues in our history and letting it become a Maguffin. Dr. David Gale (Kevin Spacey) is an anti-death penalty advocate in Austin who also teaches philosophy. He's "brilliant", which is on clear display at department parties that devolve into drunken orgies or when he's having sex with a just-dismissed student. His "brilliance is also on full display when he debates the Texas governor, a George Bush- frat boy surrogate who like's quoting the Bible and can't recognize quotes from Ghandi. But Gale, after a good start, become dead-set on showing everyone how smart he is and ends up ruining his point about compassion and level-headed rationales. This type of lifestyle mixed with his bombastic ego leads to his professional and personal downfall. This accumulates with Gale being convicted of extreme irony; after being found guilty of the rape-murder of his colleague Constance (Laura Linney). The last three days before his execution consists of being interviewed by Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet), a journalist hand-picked by Gale who is notorious for a cover story she did on child molesters. He takes her through the Life of David Gale. Initially, she is certain he is guilty, but his story convinces her that he is indeed being executed for a crime he did not commit. She also becomes intrigued by the Shadowy Cowboy who always follow her and Dusty the Intern (Matt Craven) around Huntsville. They also discover a videotape that may or may not have the clues to the crime. If I were you, I'd put money on the fact that it does hold a clue, but I don't want to spoil anything. These are the worst type of red herring set pieces and they merely accumulate in a conclusion that seems more clever than profound. Which I think was the point.

Really, there's nothing more I can say because it will spoil anything The Life of David Gale is trying to do. Essentially, the film uses the issue of the death penalty in the prism of a suspense thriller. And I'm not totally offended by this premise. I had no problem with The Quiet American using a love triangle to describe the Western involvement in Vietnam or Citizen Ruth making the abortion debate devolve into a screwball comedy. So anything should be ripe for genre consideration. But the way they hold everything up for The Big Ending requires every aspect of the film to be discussed in broad terms and filmed with even broader strokes. The result no doubt expresses an anti-death penalty sentiment on the filmmaker's part but the characters are reduced to mere, stereotypical pawns. Sure, the pro-deathers are all backward rednecks who see morality as a bully pulpit. But the anti-deathers come across as complete, emotionally-deranged psychopaths.It's too bad because I think the characters and the actors who embody them are up to the task of making an interesting, socially relevant film. Spacey is more game than he's been since The Big Kahuna. His David Gale is no saint. I mean, he does become Jesus soon enough but he's a drunk who cheats on his wife who lets his temper get the best of him. Not necessarily the type of character you want to inject the the lead needing audience support. With the exception of his cutesy-wutesy dialogue with his son, Spacey barely misses a note. And Linney does well as the long-suffering woman who keeps her dignity despite dealing with an illness and Gale's angry/lousy attitude in the flashbacks. The only lead that suffers is Winslet as Bitsey. Bitsey's transformation from Gale hater to supporter is in the "blink and you'll miss it" category. She acts more like a mood ring for the film than a real person. Her character seems to navigate the audience: Now, we're supposed to not like David Gale. Now we are. Now we're supposed to be surprised. As it is, the cast is abandoned in a film that's more worried about the ending than about allowing thoughtfulness or intelligence entering the picture.

I'm sure someday someone will be able to make an entertaining film about the death penalty that will also be smart and sharp about its subject. It is true that we've had to suffer through too many Last Dance's or Murder in the First's. This film goes way too far in the wrong direction. It's tries to be a grabber with no grabbing value. That's a lethal combination for such a subject as capital punishment. Ha-ha.

Editor's Note: Some critics have dropped the zero-bomb on The Life of David Gale. This baffles me because while it's not good, it certainly is not sacrilege. In the tradition of David Gale, I'll just assume this is a conservative conspiracy where the newspaper owners wanted to quell any enthusiasm that may be heaped upon a film that is anti-death penalty. Then again, if corporate America is worried about The Life of David Gale, then maybe I've been giving the enemy far too much credit.

 
The Pitch:
 
1 Dead Man Walking
Plus
 
1 George W. Bush
Equals
   
2 The Life of David Gale
See It For:
A Moment of the Film's Subtle Symbolism.