The Life of David Gale sells itself as an issue movie (the death penalty) wrapped in a thriller. But the thriller shows such utter contempt for the issue that it uses the death penalty as a red herring and a plot device.
This is not a movie about the death penalty, like Dead Man Walking. The death penalty is just a gimmick, cynically used in the marketing of this — excuse me — worthless piece of crap.
An Innocent Man
R for Violence, nudity, language, sexuality
David Gale (Kevin Spacey) is a prominent death penalty opponent, ironically sitting on Death Row in Texas. He’s notoriously reclusive, but after his last appeal fails, he agrees to talk to the press. He hand-picks a reporter named Bitsy (Kate Winslet) and agrees to three interviews, one on each of the three days before he is scheduled to die.
Gale is convicted of the rape of one of his students and the murder of one of his friends. He maintains his innocence, and the movie shows us his side of the story in flashback. Between the interviews, Bitsy and her intern Zack (Gabriel Mann) do some investigating on the side. It appears that Gale may be innocent, and there seems to be a Mysterious Redneck following their every move.
I was already beginning to dislike the movie when I noted the time. It was exactly 8:20, one hour and twenty minutes in to the movie (with 50 left to go), that Bitsy and Zack discovered a videotape of the murder Gale was supposed to have committed. The tape only showed a short clip, but it would have been enough to re-open Gale’s case.
I know it was 8:20 because I said to myself, “if they find some lame excuse not to call the authorities, I’m giving up on this movie.” Before I had even finished my thought, Bitsy said they weren’t going to call the cops.
Had David Gale been a rented video, I would have turned it off and done something useful with my time. Instead, I made note of the time and wasted the next 50 minutes of my life.
Alienate the Right
The first 80 minutes were bad enough. In fact, the first 20 were enough to alienate Republicans, Texans, supporters of George W. Bush, and Bible-Belt Southerners:
If The Life of David Gale wanted to poke fun at these groups, I’d say let it. But the tenor of the comments is cruel, not funny. There is no intelligent criticism, only mud-slinging attacks.
Alienate the Middle
But let’s say for argument’s sake that these attacks are fair criticism. We’ll assume that the film is choosing sides against the death penalty and its generally conservative supporters. A smart film would try to win the middle to its cause with persuasive arguments.
But David Gale is not a smart film. In one flashback Gale “debates” the governor of Texas by setting verbal traps for the poor politician, calling him another Hitler. Then, to add insult to injury, Gale loses his temper and shouts at the governor. Gale comes off looking terrible and generates only anger and contempt from any thoughtful fence-sitters who might have watched the debate.
Alienate the Left
Gale looks bad enough, but the final insult to death penalty opponents comes at the end of the film when the thriller’s “twist” is revealed. I won’t give it away here, but I’ll hint that it makes Gale and all of his friends in the anti-death penalty movement look like immoral, underhanded, unstable fanatics.
Far from generating intelligent discussion about the death penalty, The Life of David Gale makes everyone ashamed to be associated with any part of the debate.
Alienate Everyone Else
Just in case anyone hadn’t been alienated yet, the film finds a way to turn off the remainder of the crowd: gratuitous sex and violence. A flashback ostensibly showing us how Gale came lose his job as professor at the university devolves into a raunchy sex scene.
Just what you want to see in an issue movie, huh?
Then, at 8:20, after Bitsy decides to conceal videotape evidence that could free Gale, the film hits its unsuspecting audience with a gratuitous scene of horrible torture and death. A nude woman, bruised, handcuffed, with a plastic bag duct-taped around her head, slowly and painfully twitches, thrashes, and then dies.
I can stomach horror films. But a gratuitous scene of torture in a film that sells itself as an issue movie is unforgivable.
Let’s Do the Twist
The twist at the end is the only part of the script that seems to be well crafted. As good twists should, it changes the color of everything that has gone before (although it introduces new problems with the “logic” of the script).
The twist comes in two stages. Stage one is unsatisfying and feels movie-written. It’s stage two that is effective. The problem is that it takes place during the last 20 seconds of the film. It’s literally the last shot of the movie, meaning the lights come on and the credits roll before you have time to digest it.
A smarter film would give the audience just a little time to let it sink it. Just look at The Sixth Sense, which has a coda after the big surprise.
But again, “smart movie” doesn’t describe The Life of David Gale. Instead, the two words that kept springing into my mind were “utter crap.”