The Life of David Gale

“The Life of David Gale” is a prime example of what I like to call a windshield wiper movie: scrape away the thin layer of grit and grime and you can see right through it. Even though it pretends to be about something, Alan Parker’s death row drama-thriller ends up being about nothing.

It’s practically impossible to give in to the plot’s heavy-handed message, an anti-death penalty diatribe that the film proudly wears on its sleeve, which wouldn’t be nearly as irritating if it were a short-sleeve affair. No, this is a long sleeve, soap box drama that wastes the talents of several fine performers, including Kevin Spacey as a college professor awaiting execution for a rape and murder he claims he didn’t commit.

Writer Charles Randolph immediately stacks the cards against Spacey’s character by setting the film in Texas, well known for its pro death penalty stance. It’s here, where professor David Gale sits on death row, just four days away from a lethal injection. If Texas really wanted to inflict cruel and unusual punishment on death row inmates, they would force them to watch this film.

No matter where you stand on the issue, it’s unlikely “The Life of David Gale” will satisfy. It’s too preachy to be effective drama, too mundane and derivative to be entertaining, and its message gets lost in a whirlpool of over-the-top performances and direction. What’s left is a film that prays for forgiveness, but should die a quick and painless death.

Similar in theme to Clint Eastwood’s equally banal “True Crime,” where he played a newspaper reporter racing against time to free a death row prisoner he believes is innocent, “The Life of David Gale” Randolph tosses a bit of irony into this mix, making Gale an anti-death penalty activist, but it’s not enough of a twist to make the film original or even fascinating.

Instead, director Alan Parker paints every frame by the numbers, using bold colors in a feeble attempt to disguise the fact that the film has nothing important to say. Parker encourages his cast to play to the back row, a big mistake for a film that demands subtlety and finesse. What we’re left with is the celluloid equivalent of a sign-carrying, bullhorn-shouting activist who just keeps repeating the same old argument over and over again.

As the film’s protagonist, a philosophy professor who claims he was framed for the murder-rape of a fellow activist, Spacey lacks conviction. Like reporter Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet), we want to believe in Gale, but the writer and director make it all but impossible. Spacey goes through the motions, making his case through a series of flashbacks that bring us up to speed, but like his character and the speeches he’s forced to inflict, he never gets out of first gear. Randolph shades the script with touches of mystery, but anyone paying attention will beat the writer to the punch.

Spacey was much more effective conveying a sense of ambiguity in “K-PAX,” where we were never sure if he was the alien that he claimed to be. A half hour into “The Life of David Gale” we don’t care whether or not he’s guilty, or if Bitsey will ride to his rescue in the nick of time. Winslet is equally unaffecting as the brassy reporter looking for headlines as much as the truth. She’s even forced to endure that old chestnut where her car breaks down during the plot’s most pivotal moment.

As the murder victim, Laura Linney fares best of all, given just enough screen time to make her case before wearing out her welcome. Linney is always interesting to watch, and she manages to rise above the pedestrian material.

It’s been a while since Parker been effective as a director. His best films, “Fame,” “Pink Floyd’s The Wall,” “Bugsy Malone,” and “The Commitments,” were all music driven. When he tackles issues, he does so with the veracity of a pro football linebacker. “Mississippi Burning” should have been as incendiary as its topic, but emerged as wet blanket. Likewise, Parker took Frank McCourt’s highly regarded book “Angela’s Ashes” and turned it into a Gaelic soap opera.

Making his debut, writer Randolph treads familiar ground. He pads the script with in-your-face dialogue and sorry stabs at suspense. As Bitsey searches for the truth, she is accompanied by an assistant whose only purpose is to listen to her rants and raves, and is stalked by a clandestine figure. The only real mystery surrounding “The Life of David Gale” is why Spacey, Winslet, and to a point, Linney, even wanted to make the film in the first place.


Death penalty drama falls off soapbox


Kevin Spacey, Kate Winslet, Laura Linney, Gabriel Mann, Matt Craven, Rhona Mitra. Directed by Alan Parker. Rated R. 130 Minutes.


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