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'Life Of David Gale, The'

'David Gale' never gels

Friday, February 21, 2003

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

The worst thing about "The Life of David Gale," and there are many to choose from, may be the way it violates its own internal logic.

'The Life Of
David Gale'

RATING: R for violent images, nudity, language and sexuality.

STARRING: Kevin Spacey, Kate Winslet, Laura Linney.

DIRECTOR: Alan Parker.

WEB SITE: www.thelifeofdavidgale.com


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The solution to this thriller is ingenious to a fault, too contrived and calculating for its own good. Once the film offers its final revelations about who did what and why, you may realize that much of what we have just seen was manufactured solely for the audience's benefit. It makes no sense from the characters' point of view and is, in fact, counterproductive.

That also works against the movie's larger agenda, a debate over the death penalty. Director Alan Parker, who argues the movie is primarily a thriller, acknowledges the subject matter drew him to the project and says both he and screenwriter Charles Randolph oppose the practice of execution.

The film hinges on the irony of David Gale (Kevin Spacey), an activist fighting capital punishment, ending up on death row in Texas (the execution capital of the world) after being convicted of the rape and murder of a fellow activist, Constance Harroway (Laura Linney).

Less than a week before his scheduled death by lethal injection, he grants his first jailhouse interview (in exchange for a hefty cash payment). He chooses to tell his story to Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet), a reporter for a national magazine. Even her boss fears she may be too soft a touch and insists she be accompanied by an intern, Zack (Gabriel Mann), whose presence she resents.

Gale, who had been a college philosophy professor, says he's resigned to dying but wants Bitsey to clear his name for the sake of his son. Gale's ex-wife left with the boy when her husband's life began spiraling out of control due to alcoholism and a foolish dalliance with a female student that results in legal problems and unemployment.

He explains the events leading up to the murder, which are shown in flashback, but should we believe him? If he didn't kill Constance, who did? Why frame Gale? Who is the cowboy-hatted galoot in the pickup truck following Bitsey and Zack around? Is he the one who leaves Bitsey what is essentially a snuff video (containing the most disturbing imagery in the movie)?

Can Bitsey figure it out in time? You've got to wonder. What kind of reporter doesn't wear a watch? Finds crucial evidence and dallies with it, knowing time is running out? Gets a faulty rental car and doesn't exchange it (and you just know that will come back to haunt her)? In other words, she's as smart as bait.

But it must have been contagious. Gale leaves the son he treasures with a baby sitter so he can attend a party at a faculty member's house where both students and alcohol are present, proceeds to get drunk on the night before a televised debate with the pro-execution governor of Texas and succumbs to temptations that he had previously resisted.

In other words, he's as much of a loser as some of the other sorry cases who have ended up taking the lethal cocktail. That's the point, in a way, and it's also necessary to set up where the story goes. I can see why the character, with his many flaws, intrigued Spacey.

But coming after such lumpy portrayals as the idealistic teacher in "Pay It Forward," the inspirational alien in "K-Pax" and the passive sad sack in "The Shipping News," the last thing he needs is to play the pathetic scenes in which Gale moons over the loss of his son, hugging the boy's stuffed toy lamb and riding a tree swing in front of his old house.

A pale, dark-haired Linney is fine as Constance but Mann gives the best performance in what could have been a throwaway role, grounding Winslet's flightiness.

First-time screenwriter Randolph once helped an evangelical group smuggle Bibles into Eastern Europe. The movie is not as evangelical as you might think, although it is heavy-handed in its way. He is also a Texan who once taught philosophy. One can only hope he bears no further similarities to David Gale.

Ron Weiskind can be reached at rweiskind@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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