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Dan Heller's Movie Review of "The Life of David Gale"

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Movie Poster
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Talk about having your expectations slashed. I never felt a letdown more profoundly than Alan Parker's The Life of David Gale. This, from one of my favorite directors, responsible for such monumental works as Midnight Express, and socially significant and poignant films like Citizen Ruth. It's not that the film was awful, it's more the sinking feeling that an A+ honor student just got sloppy.

The movie's plot centers around a philosophy professor and outspoken anti-capital punishment activist, David Gale (played by Kevin Spacey), who's been convicted of murder and sent to death row. Four days before his execution, he grants a three-day interview with a reporter, Bitsey Bloom (played by Kate Winslet) in an attempt to prove his innocence. The bulk of the movie is Gale's story to Bloom detailing events leading up to the present moment.

Laura Linney, Kevin Spacey
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The film is billed as a thriller, and with a top-notch marquee of name-brand actors, and some moderately suspenseful moments, the film does have its fair share of entertainment value. However, the film never really rises above three pivotal problems.

First, the "thriller" genre of the film is really a thinly veiled attempt to wrap a story around an otherwise overtly slanted political statement against the death penalty. Not that there's anything wrong with using cinema to express an ideology, but it becomes beneath the quality of a director to do so simplistically, and at the expense of his own craft. For Parker, this is surprising.

To be specific, the "thriller" aspect of the film is weak, because so much obvious material is conspicuously withheld, that it becomes somewhat predictable. What's more, people's actions and behaviors are so clearly suspicious, that you can't help but see through their motivations. For example, it is implied that Gale made no effort to defend himself of his
Kevin Spacey (1)
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crime during a trial that we neither saw nor have reference to, and he seems to care little about the execution that awaits him days away. So, why does he wait till the last minute before finally deciding to claim his innocence and have his story told? Clearly, it's impossible to get a reprieve from the execution at this point, so why now? Also, as an outspoken activist for the anti-capital punishment cause, it's curious that he refused to talk to the press until now. Both these facts are so out of character for Gale, that someone should have noticed. If that's not enough, everyone associated with Gale, including his lawyer and the entire "death watch" organization, seem to be curiously silent on his imminent execution - a behavior that's uncharacteristic of a group that deems the death penalty as should never, ever be implemented on anyone, regardless of their guilt or innocence. Suspicions over the motivations of Gale and the others rise over the top when we aren't even presented with much more than a ghost of an "adversary" that would be out to frame Gale. Anyone connecting the dots - or just paying attention - can figure out what's going on, but my mentioning more at this point would give away the movie. Suffice to say, the end is hardly a surprise, if not downright predictable.

Kate Winslet, Gabriel Mann
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Ok, ok.. so the thriller part is weak. Then, what about the philosophical arguments for and against the death penalty, which clearly is a very obvious agenda of the film? Unfortunately, this is where the film is even weaker - it presents arguments so naively and sophomorically, regurgitating statistics and simple-minded populist rhetoric we've been hearing for years. The film doesn't even mention DNA testing or how there has already been a big shift in public opinion on the subject in the past couple of years. Even on a philosophical level, it doesn't really address the true complexity of the issue. By preaching to the converted, you wonder, who is the audience for this film?

Kate Winslet
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As a counter-example for a film about the death penalty, Tim Robbins' Dead Man Walking, artfully walks right down the center of the road, presenting coherent arguments both for and against the death penalty with insight and sensitivity. The film's effectiveness is accomplished by showing the equally devastating effects thrust upon people through intimate views of their lives in very realistic situations. It didn't need to preach. David Gayle doesn't let the audience draw their own conclusions like Dead Man Walking did - instead, it spoon feeds exactly what Parker wants you to think, simplistic, though it may be. The difference of the approaches of these two films is so pronounced, that, of all directors, Parker should have known better.

Matt Craven
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Oddly enough, he has done better. In Citizen Ruth, Parker articulated both sides of the abortion argument with equality and poignant observations, and even did so with biting satire. He not only showed how people progress their agenda, but how they often do so at expense of the people they aim to help. For those in emotionally churning political battles, sometimes winning isn't even enough; the other side has to lose and lose badly. Nowhere in David Gale do we see such authentic depiction of those involved in the heat of emotionally-charged infighting, even though it's the same director.

If any of that weren't enough, what finally brought the film down is the apathetic relationships between the characters, the most important of which being between Bloom, the reporter, and Gale. Since Bloom was to be the messenger of Gale's agenda, you'd think Parker would have had the two engage more intimately on some level to give her motivation to
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help him. What's more, we as audience members symbolically put ourselves in her role - if Gale can convince her of his cause, we are convinced too. Alas, this relationship never takes hold. It even appeared that her motivation to solve the "mystery" was born more out of the fact that she could solve it, than out of her sympathy for Gale or his cause. Compare this with the superb depiction of the relationship Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs.

While it's probably the case that The Life of David Gale will appeal to mass audiences who will overlook the simplistic political statements, and be attracted to the "suspense/thriller" genre, I would prefer to put it to sleep quickly... but quietly and humanely, of course.

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