The Life of David Gale
review by Gregory Avery, 21 February 2003

In The Life of David Gale, Kate Winslet plays a reporter for an American news magazine who is sent down to a prison in Texas to interview the title character (played by Kevin Spacey), a philosophy professor and outspoken opponent of the death penalty who has landed on death row himself after being convicted of committing a rape and murder. Did he really do it? Has been set up by his enemies, political or otherwise? The reporter has three days to talk to Gale before his scheduled execution, which shows no signs of being delayed, and to get at the truth.

Alan Parker has directed the picture, from an original screenplay by Charles Randolph, and, as in Mississippi Burning, he is in his crusading mode, here. Or so it would appear. Winslet's character is named Bitsey Bloom, works for a glossy magazine named "NEWS", and is described (jocularly, one would hope) as "Mike Wallace with P.M.S."; she got into trouble over  her last story, on child pornography, because she wouldn't reveal all her sources. Accompanied to Texas by a young intern (Gabriel Mann) who serves as both her flunky and as comic relief, they enter a land of bar-b-q joints, no cell-phone service, coiled barbed wire, and big menacing men with guns. During Gale's interview sessions, we see, as the camera spirals outward, his recent history unfold in flashback: this includes Gale having consensual sex with a female student ("Bite me!" she instructs) who then turns around and yells "rape" on him; the dissolution of his marriage, his career, his advocacy, and winding up as an alcoholic in a motel that's such a dive it has mud instead of water in its swimming pool; Gale's relationship with a another anti-death penalty advocate, played by Laura Linney; and a videotape which provides clues that indicate that the murder for which Gale was tried really was a set-up. (Bitsy and the intern even go so far as to, dangerously, re-enact the murder, to show that some things which should have occurred while it was being committed did not.)

While I will try to avoid letting slip the two big surprise twists which figure prominently in the movie (as Hitchcock or William Castle would say, they're the only ones it's got), I will state that two of the characters are shown acting in such a way that repudiates, to an outrageously grotesque degree, everything that they've spoken about, stood for, and professed to believe in, and that a third character becomes the victim of a mind game whose results can only be described as being frankly sadistic. Life of David Gale turns out to be all about manipulation.  The death-penalty opponents in the film want to show that "innocents", in spite of what the Texas politicians in the movie are shown saying, really do go to the death chamber. The film doesn't go about trying to prove its point by presenting an argument and providing evidence and proof to support its claim -- if it did, it could've easily drawn upon matters of public record which document many, many actual cases where people were executed, or narrowly avoided it, for crimes they did not commit. Instead, the movie handles everything as if it were all one-upmanship. The only way the death penalty "abolitionists" can win is by doing something so outrageous that it would render their opposition powerless, even if it ends up turning themselves into extreme hypocrites.

The film opens with Winslet making an Arthur Chipping-like sprint down a road, as if she were trying to get away from someone or trying to get somewhere on short notice; two hours later, we find out why. This would mean something if the picture presented us with characters who actually engaged us, but it does not: Winslet and Spacey deliver almost neutral performances (Spacey has NEVER been the same ever since he won the Oscar for American Beauty), and Linney only manages to do slightly better in bringing some shading and dimension to her role. Which is probably why, after starting out as if it were sincere in its intent, showing the characters bucketing-out on their convictions, with no grief or conscience, seems twice as offensive, especially after the second surprise plot twist is delivered to us, right between the eyes, right before the closing credits roll, and we are only allowed to respond either one way or the other.

There are ways of doing this which have a lot more integrity. A film such as Dead Man Walking managed to combine both the ugly and the humane in such a way that it genuinely engaged you in a consideration about the issues surrounding capital punishment and the putting of criminals to death, as well as going further in causing you to address your own feelings regarding beliefs, ethical and otherwise, that may be connected to it. (For one thing, the picture turned out to be one of the most intensely spiritual films I'd ever seen.) But, since The Life of David Gale  doesn't give us three-dimensional characters and it keeps tipping its hand to us outrageously throughout (crucifix imagery and references abound, one can clearly make out the Leonard Cohen song that opens and closes Natural Born Killers during a party scene, and one of Gale's last words to Bitsy is, "Maybe death is a gift...."), we can only turn our cold gaze upon the movie itself -- just as its cold gaze turns on Winslet's character in the end but also does so in a way by which it can stare at us, watching, in the audience, as if it, fatuously and vainly, were expecting us to be there -- and say that it reduces whatever it has to say about serious issues into speciousness and trickery. You feel like giving it a good swat, in the end, but, depending on your reaction, a swat may be letting it off too lightly. Because the movie cops out by telling us that everybody, but everybody, is a sell out. That's either lazy, or something that you simply refuse to accept.

Directed by:
Alan Parker

Starring:
Kevin Spacey
Kate Winslet
Laura Linney
Leon Rippy
Matt Craven 
Gabriel Mann

Written by:
Charles Randolph

Rated:
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult
guardian.

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