Saturday 8 September 2018

Movie Review: The Life Of David Gale (2003)

A mystery and drama about capital punishment, The Life Of David Gale stimulates debate, but easily manages to outsmart itself.

In a Texas prison, death row convict David Gale (Kevin Spacey) selects reporter Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet) for a series of exclusive interviews in the three days leading up to his execution. Sentenced to die for murdering fellow anti-capital punishment activist Constance Harraway (Laura Linney), he recounts his story in flashback. Gale was a respected university professor of philosophy, and along with Constance, a member of DeathWatch, a group advocating for the end of capital punishment.

Gale's fiery and argumentative personality made him a perfect spokesperson, and he debated capital punishment with the Governor on television. But Gale's marriage was in trouble, and he succumbs to a quickie with ex-student Berlin (Rhona Mitra), who promptly accuses him of rape. He loses his family and his career, but continues helping Constance. As Bitsey learns more about Gale, she notices a mysterious stranger in a pick-up truck tailing her every movement, and starts to suspect there is more to Gale's story than meets the eye.

Directed by Alan Parker and written by Charles Randolph, The Life Of David Gale glances off its target. Intended as a stunning winning hand to demonstrate the vulnerability of government-sanctioned killing, the story builds towards a couple of well-telegraphed twists that are nowhere near as clever as Parker and Randolph believe them to be. The Life Of David Gale ties itself up in a moral pretzel of its own making, unintentionally sparking in wild-eyed fashion distracting debates and comprehensively diluting any impact.

And yet there is no denying the craftsmanship on show. Parker constructs a solid drama, wrapping the mystery of Constance's death around a flawed man trying too hard. Spacey and Winset are in decent form, and the film does suffer from her absence in the flashback scenes. The grim rain-lashed grey aesthetics around the prison and the nearby town add to the film's appropriately dour mood, and provide a contrast with the slick academic milieu occupied by Gale in better days.

Bitsey and her sidekick, chain smoking intern Zack Stemmons (Gabriel Mann), enjoy some amateur detective moments, and stumble upon Nico (Melissa McCarthy), the wacky yet opportunistic current resident of the house where Constance died. The puzzle of the cowboy stranger in the pickup truck (an almost silent Matt Craven) adds just a touch of personal danger before weaving into the convoluted explanation of Constance's demise. Unfortunately for David Gale and all others involved, the closer The Life Of David Gale gets to the moment of death, the quicker it unravels.

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