Movie review: The Life of David Gale by Alan Parker

Directed by Alan Parker
Release date: 2003
Screenplay: Charles Randolph
Cast: Kevin Spacey, Kate Winslet, Laura Linney, Gabriel Mann, Matt Craven, Rhona Mitra

The Life of David Gale
The Life of David Gale (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


“The Life of David Gale” tells the story of a professor of philosophy and a famous opponent of capital punishment who, in what he must find an absurdly ironic development, finds himself on death row in Texas, charged with the rape and murder of Constance Harraway (Laura Linney), a woman who was not only his fellow activist but also one of his few real friends. The whole plot revolves about David’s brilliant academic career and his swift, steep fall, right into the arms of degrading unemployment, alcoholism and despair, with a divorce and even more painful estrangement from his little son as seasoning.

While in prison, David Gale, understandably a very bitter man who’s lost literally everything, decides to tell his version of events and to protest his innocence to a reporter named Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet), summoned especially to Texas. They are given a limited amount of time, two hours every day in a short, 72-hour period right before the impending execution. Very soon – apparently during the first session- Bitsey becomes more or less convinced of David’s innocence. She is joined in her investigation by her eager intern Zack (Gabriel Mann), and they become aware that: a) Gale’s attorney is a shifty fellow who won’t lift his little finger if he doesn’t have to and, it seems, he doesn’t care b) they are being followed everywhere in a pickup truck by a gaunt-faced man in a cowboy hat, who is either a right-wing death-penalty supporter who really killed the victim and framed David or somebody sinister else. Will they manage to prevent the worst – a judicial murder of an innocent – against all odds?

My impressions:

This movie was recommended to me by Rameau (thank you!) and its online blurbs read really well: an interesting plot about a complex man with a cause, an important cause to boot, a film starring plenty of great actors and actresses and set in Texas (yeeehaaaw!). What could go wrong? Unfortunately quite a lot but let’s start with the positives.

I really liked David Gale as portrayed by Kevin Spacey. He was a truly three-dimensional character, a man with many vices and demons, a brilliant scholar, very human and never ashamed to admit it, cruelly punished for his own cleverness. Spacey has exactly the right amount of understated earnestness to make such a character work effectively; actually it seemed that the role was too easy for him, especially if you remember his other creations. I believe this kind of role he could play in his sleep. Spacey’s finely honed performance was coupled with those of Kate Winslet and Gabriel Mann who did their bits well – no fireworks but good, believable performances nevertheless.

The movie is set in Texas, a delightful location as it is the very US state which, in a good year, all by itself, carries out almost half of the executions in America. Death Row in Texas is like a machine. It’s no longer about human life and sanctity thereof, it’s about efficiency of getting rid of those pesky criminals. Faced with such a soulless, bureaucratic machine , Gale knows very well he has just a few days to prove his innocence before he’s sent for some short, sharp, shock treatment in the big, uncomfortable chair. And here all my problems began. Told in flashback, “The Life of David Gale” started piling up more and more clicheed red herrings than a fishmonger. As the plot twists are ironed out for the revelatory finale, it’s clear that there’s actually a lot less to this than meets the eye. The man in the cowboy hat – why did they need him to behave in such an outrageous way? It was beyond silly as it screamed ‘guilty’ from a great distance. And that lawyer? He screamed “guilty” in every frame as well and guess what? He was! (not a big spoiler, really). Where is the subtlety and subterfuge? As though Parker felt the film’s point was in danger of being missed, he spelled it out for us at critical moments with the use of text. Words such as ‘Guilty’, ‘Innocent’, ‘Lust’ ‘Power’ and ‘Desire’ flash up on screen, serving little purpose other than take you out of the drama and remind you that you’re in the hands of a calculating director.

Finally my biggest complaint. I am sure the filmmakers believe their film is against the death penalty but, contrary to them, I believe it supports it. In my eyes the ending discredited the opponents of that penalty as unprincipled fraudsters, shifty and ruthless like (or even more than) your average politician or lawyer. In other words (spoiler, highlight to read) the final revelation on the videotape registered during the so-called murder, when we see it was in fact a suicide, was to me like a punch in the gut. Surely David Gale knew that Bitsey Bloom couldn’t keep it private without violating the ethics of journalism and sacrificing probably the biggest scoop of her career so it served no functional purpose except to give a cheap thrill to the audience and make you doubt everything, the noble ‘no-death-penalty’ cause included. If you are against the killing you are not supposed to kill yourself or force anybody else to kill – it sounds like a logical premise, right? I was left stupefied that somebody as intelligent as David and his fellow activists had ever agreed with such a plan. Congratulations on shooting your cause movie in the leg, Mr. Parker because no, with such an ending I don’t think it was deliberate.

Final verdict:

I would call this movie an excellent example of lost opportunities – an unconvincing, dishonest and leaden political message drama that takes a stand against capital punishishment, but does its cause more harm than good . It could have been something epic and it is merely average. What a pity. Still I do not regret having watched it.

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4 Responses to Movie review: The Life of David Gale by Alan Parker

  1. In my experience stories about the death penalty are very divisive. I remember when I read In Cold Blood I interpreted it as being anti-death penalty, but my mom interpreted as being pro-death penalty.

  2. Blodeuedd says:

    Average, and with that subject, no thanks

  3. Yeah, I remember watching Dead Man Walking and, believe it or not, it made me think that in some cases the capital punishment is really a good idea…perhaps it is just the ugly me, though.

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