The Life Of David Gale

A serious subject dealt with in a contemptibly ridiculous manner.

Released in 2003, certified UK-15. Reviewed on 21 Mar 2003 by Scott Morris
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Proving that throwing talent at an atrocious script can't save a movie especially when the acting talent turns in by-the-numbers performances, this contrived train-wreck of a movie purports to be thought-provoking, although I doubt that the thoughts provoked are what director Alan Parker had in mind.

Having been driven to the edge of reason by the antics of various unconvincing robots during low budget movie season I figured I could use a break to watch a movie with proper actors and a believable story and other such trivial concerns. It's a shame that none of the above can be found in this film which manages to be sub-standard throughout, aiming for mediocrity and failing miserably.

The story centres on ex-philosophy Professor and ex-leading death penalty abolitionist David Gale (Kevin Spacey), now himself on Death Row for murder of an academic colleague, up for extermination in four days time. While he has maintained his innocence since his initial conviction but three court hearings have begged to differ. Now, with all hope of appeals gone, David deems fit to give his first and final interview since his arrest to a young, idealistic, hard-boiled journalist by the frankly silly name of Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet). She arrives in the Texan bible belt in a flaky hire car that's prone to overheating along with magazine intern, Zack Stemmons (Gabriel Mann). Most people wouldn't put up with a faulty hire car, demanding AVIS collect the hunk of junk and provide a shiny new one. It remains a mystery for most of the movie why the intrepid journalists persist with the ailing motor, bur it all becomes clear in the end - it's a plot device used to try to inject some drama into the finale. I hope they get a discount for that.

Bitsey finds the Texan correctional facility where Gale is being held, in a state comprising largely of jovial stereotypes, which is a far easier way to write a script than creating interesting characters. Thankfully they're only involved in the periphery of the story, although still heavily enough that their Texan drawls become irritating. The main strands consist of David telling Bitsey the story of his life, or the parts relevant to his current situation at least, and Bitsey dealing with the questions raised by this outside of the interviews as you'd expect an investigative journalist to do.

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At first I thought that Spacey's portrayal of Gale while in prison was an attempt to show a man who has given up hope, which would account for his bored, flat delivery. However, when we see Gale in the full flush of life he's not terribly charismatic either. Spacey has the abundance of talent that can make a pretty poor film seem eminently watchable (see Ordinary Decent Criminal for a prime example, although please don't take that as a recommendation) but his performance here is probably best described as workman-like. In all fairness, he has little to play with in a script full of half-baked poorly executed ideas. Kate Winslet manages to work a surprising number of occasionally contradictory stereotypes into her performance, and has the most laughable attempt at breaking down in tears I've ever seen from a respected actress.

His story unfolds thus; he was a respected professor and campaigner until a disgruntled just-expelled student alleges a rape charge. She quickly drops it and leaves town, but with his name thoroughly muddied his employers find him position intolerable. This exacerbates an already pronounced drink problem, and it's not long before The Estranged Wife Of David Gale files for divorce and takes sole custody of their little boy. He hits bottom, drunkenly wandering the streets shouting about Greek philosophers and the death of Plato in a way which was no doubted intended to be prophetic and thought provoking but comes across ham-fisted and nonsensical. He is helped back to some semblance of normality by his friend and ex-colleague in the Deathwatch anti-death penalty campaign, Constance (Laura Linney). However, she is soon found murdered, with Gale's DNA all over her apartment and indeed inside her. Gale is arrested on rape and murder charges, and eventually sentenced to death, all the while maintaining his innocence. He tells Bitsey that there exists a tape of the murder occurring, which would clear him of the charges and that 'they' want him to die knowing the key to his freedom is out there, somewhere.

Zack is convinced of Gale's innocence on the shaky basis that he likes his book and thinks he's too clever to have carried out such a sloppy murder. Bitsey isn't so sure until returning to her hotel room to find a tape placed there showing the dead body of Constance. Now convinced, she must find the full uncut version of the tape to clear Gale of the crime and get a topper story to boot.

To this point in the film it's trucking along fairly nicely to the point of being a fairly average movie. However it's twisty ending is what makes it scorn worthy, and I wouldn't want to blurt it out for those who may want to see this drivel, although you've probably guessed that it's not going to pick up a strong recommendation from this filmgoer (falling into line with the majority opinion again. Damn my need to conform.). Let's just say that after this and the factually inappropriate adaptation of reality displayed in Mississippi Burning is should provide all the proof required to keep director Alan Parker away from 'serious issues' forevermore. The script varies from poor to laughable, the actors look ill at ease and the way the film has been shot is very Park-ian, as you might expect. Some may like it but I found his framing of shots unnecessarily offbeat, with some very strange and entirely unwarranted extreme close ups of inanimate objects.

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Bitsey and Zack walk into the prison grounds for the first time and we see close ups of the barbed wire atop the fences. A phone rings and we cut to a close up of the phone. Bitsey rings a doorbell so there's a close up of that too. Why, dear God, why? Is this supposed to be the most obvious symbolism in the world or something, assuming you can say that a phone ringing is symbolic of a phone ringing? His new trick of transitioning between scenes by displaying quickly cut flashes of hand-written words like 'pain', 'anger', 'betrayal', 'burger', 'chipmunk' and so on looks like it would be more at home in NYPD Blue and is quite astonishingly silly, indicative of the movie as a whole.

Bah, I could rant on this film for word upon word but I think I've covered the fact that I didn't like it very much. It is a silly, vacuous, self-serving, arrogant melodrama that just plain does not make any kind of sense, violating it's own flimsy internal logic to give a 'thrilling' twist at the end of it.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 1/5 TippyMarks.

Alan Parker
Cast list:
Kevin Spacey (David Gale)
Kate Winslet (Elizabeth 'Bitsey' Bloom)
Laura Linney (Constance Harraway)
Gabriel Mann (Zack Stemmons)
Matt Craven (Dusty Wright)