A complex crime/drama with substantial thriller elements, this fast-paced film tells the story of a passionate opposer of capital punishment, a lecturer at Texas University who is also an active member of Death Watch. When a fellow activist with whom he was close is raped and murdered, Dr David Gale (Kevin Spacey) is convicted of the crime and sentenced to death. In the last three days before his execution date he tells his story to Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet), a young reporter who at first adjudges him guilty, then while hearing his story becomes convinced of his innocence. She has twenty-four hours to find the evidence to prove it.
Like other Alan Parker films there are layers upon layers to the plot and the characterisation. The director of such polished and varied fare as Midnight Express (1978), Birdy (1984), Mississippi Burning (1988), The Commitments (1994), Evita (1996), Angela’s Ashes (1999) and others makes sure we are still thinking long afterwards, piecing together events, motivations and elements of character. The story is largely told in flashbacks with some highly tense and sinister present-time scenes as Bitsey and the young intern who is assigned to accompany her, Zack (Gabriel Mann) are apparently stalked by a mysterious cowboy in a utility, obstructed by Gale’s blandly arrogant and seemingly incompetent lawyer Braxton Belyeu (Leon Rippy), and plunged into high alarm by a video-tape of the dying woman that is left in Bitsey’s locked motel room. Parker uses illusion, misdirection, suspense and revelation as adroitly as an expert stripper and it is every bit as titillating for the audience. And when we see the naked truth revealed at the end it has the light-and-shade mixture of nobility and need, of self-loathing and generosity of a very human face.
Bitsey is the only reporter Gale has agreed to talk to. In fact, he has asked for her specifically on the strength of her having recently gone to jail for seven days rather than reveal her sources for a story – the significance of which fact only fully unfolds at the very end of the film. Over the three days, for two hours a day, he explains the background and details of the case, and there are enough inconsistencies and reasonable doubt in the circumstantial evidence on which he was convicted to lead us seriously to wonder about his lawyer’s competence and/or motives. This is confirmed by information unearthed by Zack on the second day, leading to a doubling of Bitsey’s zeal to exonerate him.
When we first meet David Gale he is in prison. Spacey plays him in this scene with a coolness and stillness which is fascinating, though not particularly likable. He seems relaxed but focussed. He blandly delivers the sardonic comment that the guards are “practising to be cruel and unusual” in the excessive loudness of their public address system. In flashbacks as he talks to Bitsey we see his other personas: the brilliant and popular University lecturer; the serious Death Watch proponent talking to his activist colleague Constance (Laura Linney); the loving father of his six-year-old son; the drunken know-it-all with a serious alcohol problem; the cuckolded husband whose wife’s affair with a man in Spain is an open secret. We also see him in a television debate on the death penalty issue with the pompous, self-righteous Governor during which he cannot help himself from cleverly humiliating his opponent in a show of ego which Constance angrily points out later, will not help their cause. The Governor scores one point, challenging Gale that if he can produce one innocent man who has been given the death penalty, he, the Governor, will change sides. Unable to name one, Gale feels this defeat personally and the challenge has extraordinary ramifications. Gale is a man of complex extremes. In a whirlwind of out-of-control, alcoholic self-destruction when he is drunk, he personifies the calm in the eye of the storm when sober. Throughout Spacey gives him an underlying self-dislike which unfortunately creates the same effect on the audience. His need to help others is all too easily self-redemptive rather than selflessly humanitarian in design, and while Parker’s intention here is to create a complex human being who is understandably flawed, Spacey’s portrayal is problematic in producing the necessary sympathy for the character. Because this movie turns on relationships and characterisation it is a significant flaw in the film.
What is the measure of a man’s humanity? According to Gale, quoting the French neo-Freudian psychologist Lacan in a lecture to his students, the only way we can measure the value of our lives is in how well we value the lives of others. He talks about fantasies needing to be unrealistic by their very nature. Desire, he says to his amused students, feeds crazy fantasies. Be careful what you wish for, because when you get it, you’ll no longer want it. Appropriately he says this just as a student named Berlin (the beautiful Rhona Mitra, perfectly cast as a seductive time-bomb with Trouble telegraphed in every calculating movement and look) comes in late, then when all the students have left, she propositions him. She would do anything, she says, to pass. He enjoys teasing her and flirting with her but his rebuff at this point has major, lethal consequences. It is one of the subtle secondary ironies of the movie that in retrospect we realise that had Berlin been present at the whole of the lecture and had she taken its lesson to heart, she might not have pursued her particular crazy fantasy.
Gale’s relationship with Constance is professional, though close and affectionate. Nevertheless he is shocked to find out that she has leukaemia and is awed by her genuine selflessness in her dedication to the Death Watch organisation. Laura Linney plays Constance with a single-minded, dutiful intensity which is an extension of her role in You Can Count on Me (2000) and she gets her toughness and her vulnerability exactly right. As Gale describes her to Bitsey, he cries. It is the turning point for Bitsey in her assumption of his guilt or innocence. We see he is a man who is genuinely compassionate and generous. The scene in which he makes love to Constance after he finds out about her illness is one of the more sweetly moving and giving love scenes I have seen. Similarly the scenes with his son are delightfully unforced, making his gift to him, then living with his mother in Spain at the end of the movie, a measure of his love and need to provide for him.
Bitsey’s relationship with Zack is nicely balanced. Despite her ridiculous name Winslet plays her as a serious young woman, driven, ambitious and practical, while Zack is reflective and thoughtful. She doesn’t want him there and hates his smoking, so their communication is usually conflictual and bantering. They are New Yorkers in Texas and on the way to the jail, she points out, “You know you’re in the Bible Belt when there are more churches than Starbucks.” Zack replies, “You know you’re in the Bible Belt when there are more prisons than Starbucks!” He believes Gale is innocent on the basis that the writer of the brilliant book “Dialogical Exhaustion” would never have conducted such a deliberate rape and murder in such a messy fashion. Nevertheless, it is Bitsey’s change of opinion about Gale that gives her the rebounding momentum to race against time, aided by Zack, to prove his innocence.
There are some effective images in this film allowing it not to rest on plot or characterisation alone. The opening, wide-angle image is of Bitsey, videotape in hand, running urgently down a country road after her rental car overheats, setting the thriller pace because at that point we know nothing. The ominous-looking cowboy in the utility, silhouette backlit in the dark, and his decrepit house literally plastered with posters and cuttings of martyrs are equally haunting sights. Similarly startling is Zack and Bitsey’s replaying of Constance’s death with the help of the purely mercenary, current Gothic resident of the ‘David Gale death house’. Most telling of all is the shot of Gale lying cruciform on the lawn outside his former house. His head resting on Cloud Dog, the stuffed toy belonging to his absent son, he looks relaxed and contented for the first time in a long while and in contrast to his recent maudlin, drunken reeling as he tried to deal with a series of devastating losses. The significance of this shot (and of Cloud Dog) only appears much later. Then there is also the periodic insertion of rapid flashes of words such as PAIN, DEATH, PRISON, SELF-SACRIFICE at appropriate moment of sudden realisation and significance, as when Gale learns about Constance’s illness, bringing immediacy and punch to the character’s experience.
Much of the last section of the movie is shot without dialogue, an appropriate musical score unobtrusive in the background. We might be hungry for clues after we thought the story had actually ended, but this is not just a tying up of loose ends. Instead it brings realisations and a few more questions, not all of which are answered. We might wonder about a martyr to a cause who is as calculating and manipulative as Gale seems to be. If sacrificing oneself on the razor wire of an existing unjust system is the only way one can prove injustice, is it justified? How smart was Gale to hire an incompetent lawyer? How much of his self-sacrifice was determined by an egotistical need to prove the Governor wrong? Is a noble action devalued by less than pure motives or does the end justify the means? If through low self-esteem a martyr values others’ lives more than his own, how much does that play into his wilful self-destruction? Further, if one is unconsciously self-destructive anyway, is it more morally valuable deliberately and consciously to destroy oneself in a good cause, and does that provide redemption? Like life, the movie presents no black and white conclusions. The Life of David Gale is a movie to enjoy equally if you are a thinker, or simply as a visual and emotional journey of great power.
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