The Life Of David Gale

on February 21, 2003 by Tim Cogshell
The central problem with "The Life of David Gale" is a failure by filmmaker Alan Parker ("Evita," "Angela's Ashes") to meld two difficult genres. Usually, profound meditations on pressing contemporary issues--the death penalty serves here--don't mix with terse mystery thrillers, also attempted here. The genres' emotional moorings are simply not the same; thus a success at such a pairing, like "Brubaker" or "Dead Man Walking," are few and far between. More often, one gets mediocre movies like Parker's "Mississippi Burning" or, worse, the litany of Hollywood's John Grisham adaptations. These are all trivial studio films full of wishy-washy (though possibly valid) liberal ideologies, and trite mystery/thriller narratives that don't always even make sense.

"The Life of David Gale" is one as well. Like those films, it's pretentious. It's also badly scripted, full of rote dialogue. And it's didactic, which is just irritating. "The Life of David Gale" is also full of bad performances, even from the name actors, adding to the recently spotty records of Kevin Spacey ("Pay It Forward," "K-PAX") and Kate Winslet ("Iris," "Enigma"). The film even looks amateurish; its cinematography wouldn't be out of place in an episode of a Stephen J. Cannell television series. This seems odd coming from the director of "Midnight Express" and "The Wall." One can hope experimentation is the cause, as the over-produced veneer and weird transitions are unacceptable.

The politically correct, ill-plotted narrative is also unacceptable. The film is a polemic against the death penalty, which may be a reasonable position, but played out as a mystery/thriller it's silly, and often embarrassing. Its story: Condemned man David Gale, played with over-emoted sincerity by Spacey, elicits the help of a noted journalist named Bitsey (Winslet) to prove a point; three days before his execution, he sets her on the trail of a mystery that could prove his "innocence." Co-star Laura Linney ("You Can Count on Me") wastes an otherwise potentially noteworthy moment of personal vulnerability in service of an unworthy project. Together, it all adds up to something less valuable than the sum of its parts. The film's politics are dubious but interesting; its mystery is a mess but might have been salvageable in a less ponderous production. Starring Kevin Spacey, Kate Winslet, Laura Linney and Gabriel Mann. Directed by Alan Parker. Written by Charles Randolph. Produced by Alan Parker and Nicolas Cage. A Universal release. Drama. Rated R for violent images, nudity, language and sexuality. Running time: 130 min

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