Review by Paul Stathakis | 2003

With a cast this good and a fair­ly intrigu­ing premise, can direc­tor Alan Park­er’s dra­ma “The Life of David Gale” pos­si­bly fail?

David Gale (Kevin Spacey) is an intel­lect. We learn that he was top of his Har­vard class and that he authored two books. Gale is also a phi­los­o­phy pro­fes­sor and one of Texas’ lead­ing death penal­ty abo­li­tion­ists. So who would ever expect to see him accused of rap­ing a stu­dent, then rap­ing and killing anoth­er woman? No one.

For an intel­lec­tu­al man, Gale cer­tain­ly has had his share of rather sil­ly mis­takes. One of them is hav­ing a sex­u­al encounter with Berlin (Rhona Mitra), one of his attrac­tive stu­dents, who then accus­es Gale of rap­ing her. David gets dis­par­aged by the media and even los­es his job. His mar­ried life also goes to waste when his wife asks him for a divorce and gets cus­tody of their child — a recur­ring motif that helps Gale self-destruct. He decides to focus all his atten­tion on lead­ing a pack of cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment pro­test­ers — apt­ly named “Death­watch” — with fel­low activist Con­stance Har­raway (Lau­ra Lin­ney). But the unex­pect­ed hap­pens: Con­stance is mur­dered; Gale is linked to her killing, then found guilty by three Supreme courts, and placed on death row. Now, that’s what I call “bad luck.”

After serv­ing a six-year prison term, Gale’s name resur­faces in the pub­lic eye as offi­cials set a date for his exe­cu­tion. But as luck would have it, a reporter look­ing for a hot sto­ry is treat­ed to an inter­view with Gale (orga­nized by Gale him­self and his lawyer). She is cho­sen after hav­ing spent some time in jail, pro­tect­ing sources. Her name is Bit­sey Bloom (Kate Winslet).

Bit­sey begins to review parts of the case and finds her­self get­ting more involved. She final­ly gets her shot at three inter­views with Gale, which can­not be record­ed. Dur­ing the inter­view, David con­vinces Bit­sey that he is inno­cent. He claims that right-wing fol­low­ers of the death penal­ty framed him. “Miss Bloom, I used to be the state’s lead­ing death penal­ty abo­li­tion­ist and now I’m on death row. Does­n’t that strike you as a lit­tle odd?,“says Gale.

Bit­sey does find the whole sit­u­a­tion odd, so she decides to launch a pri­vate inves­ti­ga­tion with her intern, Zack (Gabriel Mann). She begins work­ing around the clock, hop­ing to prove Gale’s inno­cence and to call off the exe­cu­tion. But time is an issue. Bit­sey only has four days to piece the crime together.

The movie opens up with Bit­sey’s car break­ing down. She exits her vehi­cle and begins run­ning (rough­ly like Tom Cruise did in “The Firm”) with a video­tape in her hands. But, we don’t know why she is rush­ing. The open­ing sequence is the only con­sid­er­able attempt at pro­duc­ing small-time sus­pense in the film — and it suc­ceeds. The scene is excit­ing and delib­er­ate­ly starts our engines. How­ev­er, from there on, the movie’s fuse of sus­pense and dra­ma just does­n’t blend or work. It turns into a dis­as­ter of a drama.

Rarely does the film even make an effort to be involv­ing. It is a one-dimen­sion­al thriller that nev­er tries break­ing out­side of the box. Even Spacey’s dron­ing tone gave me the impres­sion he was as bored as I was.

Whether the end­ing is a sur­prise to you or not, chances are you won’t be inter­est­ed in watch­ing any­more. Gale sets up a lit­tle mys­tery sto­ry, which forces us to ques­tion the death penal­ty sys­tem. The mes­sage isn’t orga­nized, because the case is over­stuffed with infor­ma­tion. The actors try hard to be mem­o­rable, but don’t even pro­vide us with any­thing remote­ly unfor­get­table. The movie does­n’t even know what to focus on and who to focus on. Some­times it just hangs with­out a pur­pose, or at least it felt that way.

Spacey and Winslet’s per­for­mances are mediocre. The mate­r­i­al they’re giv­en to work with is poor. In fact, Winslet’s per­for­mance shifts from pow­er­ful to less believ­able dur­ing the sec­ond half of the flick. But it’s Kevin Spacey who most­ly stayed strong all the way and kept me seat­ed, away from the exit doors. A few sol­id quotes aside, the script is a mess. It is stuffy, bor­ing, and drags us along only to lead us nowhere.

The start­ing is moti­vat­ing, but the end­ing is more mock­ing than shock­ing. It mocks us in the way it address­es the whole death penal­ty issue and the way it strives to leave us sur­prised or bewil­dered. It is ulti­mate­ly inef­fec­tive. Alan Park­er may be great at set­ting up a scene and fram­ing it cor­rect­ly, but he should­n’t for­get that a good sto­ry and a sol­id script are essen­tial to the mak­ing of a sol­id film. My advice to the cre­ators of this movie is that they re-watch films such as “A Place in the Sun” or “Dead Man Walk­ing” to under­stand why they failed.


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