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Life Less


I had high hopes for Alan Parker early in his career. Bugsy Malone and Fame were a lot of fun. Midnight Express was flawed but promising, and Shoot the Moon was brilliant. Two decades later Shoot the Moon remains as insightful a portrait of a deteriorating marriage as has ever been brought to the screen. Since then, however, Parker's work has been disappointing (The Commitments excepted). With Mississippi Burning Parker managed to make a movie about the civil rights movement that defiled the principles for which its leaders stood. Now with The Life of David Gale, Parker has done something similar: he's made a movie ostensibly attacking the death penalty that ultimately serves to endorse it.

Written by Charles Randolph, The Life of David Gale stars Kevin Spacey as the title character, a charismatic Texas philosophy professor with a Harvard education and two books on his resume. Gale has been, moreover, spokesman for the prominent anti-capital-punishment organization, Deathwatch, in which role he has debated the pro-death penalty governor on statewide TV. Today, however, Gale is on death row, convicted of raping and murdering his philosophy department colleague Constance Hallaway (Laura Linney), a woman who has been his friend, Deathwatch collaborator and lover.

Gale has four days to live when he enjoins hard-charging magazine reporter Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet) to prove his innocence. Bloom agrees to interview and report on Gale's case, not because she's convinced he's innocent, but because she's attracted to the notoriety of Gale's case and particularly his claim that he's been framed by right-wingers to discredit the death penalty abolition movement.

For anyone truly interested in the death penalty, I recommend Scott Turow's searching, balanced and unquestionably sincere reflections in a recent New Yorker article. I can't really gauge the sincerity of the filmmakers here, though I presume they see themselves as devoted opponents of capital punishment. Certainly the information they present about the failure of capital punishment to deter capital crime and the examples they cite about the number of men on death row who have subsequently been proven innocent through DNA evidence should concern anyone who cares about justice.

I can, however, readily critique the lame narrative Randolph and Parker have designed to carry their message. The storytelling is appallingly cliched. We know from the very early going that Bloom will come to believe in Gale's innocence. And we know that she will find herself in a race against the clock to try to get her evidence into court before the needle goes into his arm. But do we have to have a car that overheats? Do we have to have cell phones that mysteriously won't work in Austin, one of the most technologically sophisticated burgs in the land? From the moment Bloom picks up her rental car, she's tailed by a mysterious cowboy in a rusty pickup. But when we finally learn the cowboy's identity, his menacing of Bloom makes no sense.

There are sundry other narrative glitches. There's Gale's utterly unlikely involvement with a sultry graduate student (Rhona Mitra) in the bathroom at a raucous departmental party that no faculty has ever hosted save at the University of Hell. Most important, the picture jettisons character for plot (obviously not understanding that effective plot arises out of well-developed characters). Constance's murder was a particularly gruesome affair. She was found naked, handcuffed, gagged with duct tape and smothered in a plastic bag. The keys to the handcuffs were found in her stomach. Such a ritual and cruel murder would seem either the work of a psychopath or the product of a maddened act of revenge. Gale is not the former and no evidence emerges to suggest a motivation for the latter. We can perhaps imagine him in a rage, like any other human being. But Constance's murder is cold-blooded and calculated in vicious detail. What conceivable motive did the prosecution advance for Gale's having committed such an unspeakable act? In short, how was he convicted? The picture simply doesn't tell us.

The twists of the end require that I avoid revealing them. But I will say that they seemed painfully obvious to me from the first half hour forward. That's not to say, however, that they aren't, at the narrative level, entirely preposterous and, at the thematic level, absolutely infuriating. I am tempted to offer at least one word of praise for this film -- for the performance of Laura Linney as Constance. Though Linney earned an Oscar nomination for You Can Count on Me, her talent remains under-appreciated. She's very brave here, playing against her natural beauty. But just as I want to single her out, I realize that she agreed to be in this movie without realizing, evidently, that her character makes little sense and that the film insidiously negates its own message. To her, as with all others involved, I have to ask, "What in the world were y'all thinking?"

Crime against sensibility: Capital-punishment critic David Gale (Kevin Spacey) finds himself on death row in the woeful The Life of David Gale.
  • Crime against sensibility: Capital-punishment critic David Gale (Kevin Spacey) finds himself on death row in the woeful The Life of David Gale.

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