The Life Of David Gale Review
I'm going to break a personal rule and give away the surprise ending of The Life Of David Gale. Dramatic last-minute twists are a pain in the arse for critics as we don't want to ruin the film we're reviewing (honest!) but sometimes the twist changes the movie significantly, improves it or damages it. Normally my policy is to try and write around them but in this case, what's revealed in the last shots is so vital to the story and message of the film that I can't discuss it in any detail without revealing the secret. If you're planning to see the movie and don't want it spoiled, you'd be best advised to read another review.
This is a death row drama, the latest in a long line which has included, in recent years, Dead Man Walking, Last Dance, The Chamber and True Crime. You know the routine - a condemned prisoner's time is running out and their only hope for a pardon lies with a lawyer, reporter or nun. That's being unfair to Dead Man Walking, which was a more thoughful look at capital punishment, but most of these films do give in to melodrama. Robert Altman parodied the genre in The Player. The film Tim Robbins was producing ended with Bruce Willis saving Julia Roberts' life by shooting out the windows of the gas chamber. (Roberts - "What kept you?" Willis - "Traffic was a bitch.") The conventions have become so tired that a new film really must bring something special to the party. The Life Of David Gale does bring one original and thought-provoking idea but it brings it too late.
Kevin Spacey plays the title character, David Gale, once a Texas philosophy professor and a prominent anti-death penalty campaigner before he lost his job, his family and his reputation when he was falsely accused of rape by a malicious student (Rhona Mitra). His life spiralled downwards and he became an alcoholic prone to fits of rage. Then his friend and former colleague Constance Harraway (Laura Linney) was raped and murdered and Gale was convicted and sentenced to death. He's now days away from execution and, having refused for years to talk to the press, he requests an interview with New York journalist Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet), to whom he protests his innocence.
Here come the spoilers. Bitsey, together with unwanted intern partner Zach Stemmons (Gabriel Mann), deduces from a grisly videotape left in her motel room that Constance's death was in fact suicide - she was dying of leukemia - and suspects that a mysterious cowboy (Matt Craven) who has been tailing her may have helped her die and framed Gale. As the hours count down towards Gale's lethal injection, Bitsey races to find evidence that will prove her theory and exonerate him. I won't reveal whether she's successful but I must give away the final twist, which is that Gale wasn't framed: he, the cowboy and Constance conspired to fake her murder so that he would die for the crime and the death penalty would be discredited by claiming an innocent victim.
Not that this is a huge surprise. For most of the film, we're led to suspect the authorities framed Gale. The false rape claim may indeed have been designed to do this, although that's not made clear. Once we learn that Constance killed herself however, it's not hard to guess the rest. The idea of the cowboy, who is a fellow activist, framing Gale on his own is unconvincing. Would a liberal-minded film portray a death penalty abolitionist as a murderer? The film prefigures Gale's involvement with much talk of self-sacrifice and martyrdom. If you know your New Testament, you'll note the references to Judas and the heavy-handed symbolism of a toy lamb, Christ having compared himself to a lamb going meekly to the slaughter. Are we supposed to see Gale as the lamb, nobly sacrificing himself to help bring about the abolition of the death penalty? The film does drop a hint that, as his life had been wrecked, he may have partly done it for self-aggrandisement but, as we don't find out that he was involved till the end, the issue isn't dealt with.
And there's the problem with the film. It's interesting in retrospect. For the two hours and ten minutes you watch it, it's just a mediocre death row thriller, complete with last minute dash to save the condemned man's life. The thriller elements aren't particularly well done and don't gel with the more serious stuff. The twist actually renders some of the earlier events incomprehensible. Given that no one is supposed to know the truth till after Gale's death, why the tantalising videotape? Why does the cowboy tail the journalists? Why does Gale even arrange the interview when all the information is to be provided to the press after his death? The answer is: because otherwise there's no film. Maybe a great movie could have been made out of the subject matter if the last scene had been the opening and the film could then explore the issues it raises, question Gale's motives and show the results of his act.
The film that has been made is flawed and mediocre but not bad. Alan Parker is a skilful director whose thrillers include Angel Heart, Midnight Express and Mississippi Burning and he brings his technique to the picture, though he can't cement over the plot holes. The acting is variable. Kevin Spacey does a fine job in a complex role and, as the fierce but vulnerable Constance, Laura Linney is extremely impressive. She's emerging as one of America's best actresses and her scenes with Spacey are the best in the film. On the other hand, Kate Winslet has nothing to work with, her character alternating between ball-busting journalist and anguished heroine as required. She cries here more than she did in Titanic. Of the rest of the cast, the only memorable performance is from Rhona Mitra, which may come as a surprise if you've seen her in Ali G InDaHouse and Sweet Home Alabama.
If you want to see a serious film about the death penalty, let me recommend Tim Robbins' Dead Man Walking, which is powerful and intelligent. If you want to see a well made race-against-time thriller, Clint Eastwood's True Crime is a decent attempt. The Life Of David Gale tries to be both things at once and regrettably fails to be either.