The Life of David Gale

| March 4, 2003

I’m not sure what all the negative reviewing on this movie is for. I was very optimistic about the quality of the film going in. Three very talented actors, namely Kevin Spacey, Laura Linney and Kate Winslet and an intense dramatic premise. Not much to complain about. I’m assuming that all those other reviewers were expecting something else or just having a bad day.
The Life of David Gale is the story of a highly intelligent college professor named David Gale (Kevin Spacey) who moonlights as a death penalty abolitionist. He is energetic and loved by both staff at the university and his students. Yet, at the beginning of the story, we find him behind bars in Texas, four days away from his execution for the brutal rape and murder of his collegue and best friend, Constance (Laura Linney). Now that his death draws close, he sends out his lawyer to find Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet) the young journalist who he has chosen to give his first and final interview.
From the beginning, Bitsey learns that Gale was, despite his healthy career and likeability, dealt a rough hand. His adulteress of a wife leaves him home alone half the time while she sees her lover in Spain. Gale takes to drink, a situation not helped by a collegate community and department where the teachers hang out with the students and can party just as hard. After a drunken binge, Gale is accused of raping one of his students. Though the charges are never dropped, his reputation is now destroyed, his teaching career ruined, his participation in the anti-death penalty group, Deathwatch, taken away and is left alone by his wife and son, who move to Spain. He falls headlong into a drunken haze.
The only person who helps him back to any semblance of normalcy is his friend Constance. She encourages him to get back into activism and teaching when no one wants him around. But when Constance is found with Gale’s semen inside her body and his prints are all over the evidence, there is little doubt for the police and Gale is taken, tried and convicted. In his interviews with Bitsey, Gale reconstructs the sad events that led to his incarceration. Touched by his story, Bistey starts to believe in his innocence and to look for a way to get a stay of execution.
If the film has a weakness, it is in the writing. Not the plot, mind you, but in the dialogue. This is not the type of movie that everyone is going to tap into. Primarily, the core audience for this story is going to be thinking adults who don’t need to have things spelled out for them. The conversational dialogue is interesting and real, but the writing that serves to forward the plot or to serve as exposition is too verbose. Gale rants on about the irony of his situation, which after the first mention, the audience was fine about. The worst victim of over-writing is Winslet, whose character feels the need to give a speech every time she comes to a new revalation about the evidence. Whoever did the dialogue really needed to run the script through the editing machine one more time.
The performances, however, from all three leads are very strong. Though known most publicly for Titanic, Winslet’s best performances have always come from heavier dramatic material. Her Bitsey moves from detached journalist to wounded friend. Spacey is cast in a role that is somewhat against type for him. His Gale is exposed and weak, while passionate and bold. The scenes where he pines for his son while falling down drunk are painful to watch. Some of his dialogue while in the prison is speechy and melodramatic, but thankfully for us, as an experienced stage actor, Spacey navigates the clunky working as well as can be hoped. Linney’s performance is a gem, though if the reviewers have their way, she will again have a strong performance buried in a movie no one sees. One of her highlight moments is when Deathwatch has failed in saving a 17-year-old girl from her execution. Linney’s character gives a highly passionate speech about the cycle of killing perpetuated by the death penalty. She has another scene that is absolutely torture to watch, but I don’t want to give away the plot.
While the obvious topic at hand in the film is the death penalty, what the film further questions is the infallibility of our judicial system. Gale’s guilt or innocence is constantly in question, even after you know exactly what happened. After I left the film, I ended up in heated debate about convictions and human rights. Actual thinking after a movie…hmmm…what a novel idea.
If nothing else, go check out The Life of David Gale just to support the people out there who are trying to make movies that are about something.

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