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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