We’re not in Texas anymore

A new film looks at the death penalty debate with dubious results

by Steven Snyder

The Life of David Gale” is a prime example of everything that’s wrong with “message” movies. In 2000, a film called “The Contender” was so concerned in touting the character of Bill Clinton it could have easily been called a propaganda picture. This year, one of the worst films will surely be “The Life of David Gale,” a film so concerned with its messages about capital punishment it forgets its first duty: to entertain.

Rather than discuss the issue in seriousness, exploring both the good and bad sides of the death penalty, “Gale” becomes nothing more than a bankrupt thriller, leeching on to the subject as a means of maintaining its artificial intensity.

When discussing the actual life of title character David Gale (Kevin Spacey), the film does gain some momentum. Gale is a renowned professor, a staunch opponent of the death penalty, and works closely with Constance (Laura Linney) and a group called Death Watch to oppose capital punishment across the country.

After one lustful evening with a student, however, Gale is suspected of rape, quickly losing his wife, child and job. Not long after, according to Gale, he is “framed” for murdering Constance, and is sentenced to death by the very system he has fought against. It is here, in jail, that he confides his story to reporter Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet), and she becomes so obsessed with his case that she begins investigating who could have framed him and why.

What inevitably drives “Gale” head-first into forgettable mediocrity is a story so stupid that it actually does a disservice to the cause “Gale” attempts to support and a director so out-of-control that he abandons storytelling for pure emotional manipulation.

Bitsey’s storyline – the film’s desperate attempt to generate suspense – is, at best, absurd. She is given clues in random locations at random times to push the story forward. She is constantly chased by a mysterious pickup truck that, you guessed it, figures prominently in the climax. There is a conventional last-second race to the jail and a sudden, implausible revelation of the truth.

Worst, though, is the fact that “Gale” uses the issue of capital punishment as little more than a crutch to carry its thrills forward. Witnessing this man on death row, a videotape of his supposed crime, and the watered-down ethical debates over executions, some might think of “Gale” as a thinking person’s film.

Instead of the hoped-for depth, however, the film is shallow and transparent. A shocking death video is not nearly as powerful as the filmmakers would have us believe, and the film’s constant reminders of Gale’s imminent execution are terribly self-reflective. Death is powerful stuff, and it requires absolutely no skill to make someone contemplate and reflect on the subject.

The difference here is “Gale” addresses death without bringing anything new or interesting to the discussion. It is shocking when it should be insightful, time and again shattering its philosophical debate with its idiotic thriller subplot. The truth behind a mysterious videotape is actually so ill-conceived it destroys the very debate about capital punishment that has existed in the foreground.

“Gale” does not have a believable central character, fails to create any excitement with its conventional suspense, and consistently falls short of confronting a politically charged subject. It is a complete, and obvious, failure.

“The Life of David Gale,” directed by Alan Parker. Starring Kevin Spacey, Kate Winslet, Laura Linney. Now Showing at area theaters

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