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The Life of David Gale

  The Life of David Gale
Kevin Spacey goes "OZ."

© 2003, Universal
All Rights Reserved

As a college professor and a Texas death penalty abolitionist, David Gale's (Kevin Spacey, smug and insincere) life has always been rife with conflict. After being accused of rape by a former student, Gale loses his job and his marriage, and soon develops a drinking problem. But when a colleague (Laura Linney, searing and real) shows up dead in her house with evidence linking Gale to the crime, things get much worse. He is convicted of murder and sent to death row, with only a few more days before his execution. Enter Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet, having trouble swallowing her natural English accent), a magazine reporter sent to cover the Gale execution. As she begins interviewing Gale, and allowing him to recount his downward spiral toward his current situation, she realizes that Gale just might not be guilty of his crime, and sets out to uncover what really happened.

In the tradition of "Dead Man Walking, "Last Dance" and Clint Eastwood's "True Crime," comes another death row thriller, with even loftier political ambitions than those pictures. Alan Parker's "The Life of David Gale" (IMDb listing) is equal parts investigative thriller and political sermon on the evils of capital punishment, with the former working almost flawlessly, and the latter belly flopping into a sea of embarrassment.

This narrative terrain is hackneyed, and "David Gale" doesn't bring anything new to the genre. It is only in the energy of the story, and its surprisingly ambiguous characterizations, that the film can find success. As Gale begins to recall his turbulent past, Parker has no trouble setting up the palpable tension in Gale's life, complete with unseemly sexual escapades, and his descent into alcoholism. Gale is set up as an unbridled liberal, holding so steadfastly to ideals of justice and the abolishment of cruel and usual punishment that, honestly, it makes him an easy target. But by giving Gale less than agreeable personality attributes, and also having other characters around him admonish him firmly for his runaway ego, the Gale character is fortunately more rounded, rather than just the Christ figure (a quality found in many Spacey performances) these films tend to offer.

I also enjoyed the unraveling nature of the case, with Bitsey slowly coming to grips with her suspicions. Granted, some of these revelations are hammy (a shadowy cowboy figure follows Bitsey wherever she goes), and annoying (there is an intern character, played by Gabriel Mann, that keeps Bitsey company, and also removes the need for Bitsey's inner-monologue), but they keep the attention on the screen where it belongs. I also doubt many will be able to spot exactly where the film is exactly going, besides the usual political rhetoric. As a thriller, "David Gale" works. It's constantly changing audience perception, and provides enough nail-biting moments to score.

However, when it comes time to make it all mean something, Parker (so good recently with "Evita" and "Angela's Ashes") falters mightily. As sanctimonious preaching goes, "David Gale" doesn't live up to any of its ambitions to pooh-pooh the Texas death penalty system. The structure of this film cannot bear the weight of such soapbox-standing, and it betrays the spirit of the story. Especially the climax of the picture, which efficiently betrays the very ethics Gale stood for. Parker even tries to shoehorn some statistics into the soundtrack, leaving this compelling film with a bad taste in my mouth. There is a time and a place for a thoughtful discussion of this explosive subject, but "The Life of David Gale" is just not the venue for it.

Filmfodder Grade: C+

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