The Life of David Gale

David Gale (Kevin Spacey) used to have it all. He was the Head of Philosophy at Austin University, an acclaimed writer with a wife and son (with some dinosaur pyjamas I’m more than slightly jealous of), co-director of Death Watch a group against the death penalty, and he had the moral standing to turn down the advances of a nubile young student out for an easy A (Rhona Mitra). Now, however, he’s in jail, about to be condemned with the very punishment he’s spent his life protesting against, having been convicted of the rape and murder of his friend, colleague and fellow protester, Constance Harroway (Laura Linney). Three days before his scheduled execution, Gale requests three interviews with ambitious yet unfortunately named magazine journalist Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet), to whom he tells his story in the hope that she will believe him, and discover whoever is behind his supposed framing for the crime he says he didn’t commit.

Rape. Capital punishment. Melissa McCarthy dressed as a goth. I’ve now officially given up all hope that I’m going to enjoy any Kate Winslet film that I haven’t seen before. And don’t even get me started on the fact that I’ve got to at some point watch Movie 43. I’ve read the reviews, and I flat out refuse to pay money to see something in the cinema that’s making a valiant effort to achieve a negative grade on Rotten Tomatoes. In the case of The Life of David Gale, I was slightly concerned that I’d never even heard of the film before compiling Winslet’s list, especially when you consider that she, Kevin Spacey and Laura Linney are all reputable names, which led me to believe they may have made some joint effort to bury this amongst their CVs. Well, whilst this certainly wasn’t a great film, it wasn’t quite as bad as I’d initially anticipated.
For a start, the acting is pretty good, but then with a cast like Spacey, Winslet and Linney, what exactly were you expecting? Linney especially is brilliant in the flashbacks of Gale’s life before the crime, and there’s some nicely filled supporting players like Leon Rippy as Gale’s attorney and Matt Craven as a mysterious cowboy who seems to be stalking Bitsey. The cast is, however, let down by Gabriel Mann as Winslet’s intern assistant Zack Stemmons, who does his best but just comes off as incessantly whiny and annoying. Regardless of Mann, I was kept fairly riveted until the end of the film, as I was intrigued as to how exactly it would play out, even though it was clear from the very outset that there were only two possible outcomes.
And so we come to my main problem with the film, the beginning. It’s never a good thing when the start of a film draws an eye roll from the viewer, but if you begin with a sequence in which your heroine pleads in desperation with a faltering automobile that just will not start, before anxiously checking her watch, evacuating the vehicle and running full tilt whilst carrying an important-looking document of some kind, then dammit I’m going to be frustrated with you. Such a set-up; a preview of the film’s climax, can only mean that Winslet’s dogged reporter has discovered some vital yet never before seen scrap of evidence that will surely lead to the release of her subject, yet she’s found it mere moments away from his execution, so must race against time to place the proof in the hands of those in charge of the chair, syringe, guillotine or whatever implement of early demise the good state of Texas was using at that time. By sheer Hollywood law she’ll either arrive with seconds to spare or far too late, and this is the only real unknown, other than the evidence she has discovered, making everything else a build-up for this inevitable conclusion. What this does mean is that the film isn’t necessarily about whether Gale can convince Bitsey that he’s innocent or not, when he clearly does by the opening. Instead, this is a film about why. Why is he in prison? If he committed the crime, why did he do it, and if he didn’t, then why is there such an orgy of evidence indicating to the contrary. Whilst this took the film in a direction I hadn’t necessarily expected, I didn’t really mind all that much.
What I did mind, however, is the tone of the film, which is beyond preaching. This film takes a firm stand against the death penalty, and isn’t afraid to shout about it. Regardless of my own feelings for it, this film is prepared to go to great lengths to pull you on side in agreement come the credits. Rather than letting the viewer make up their own mind, an opinion is forcibly injected into your veins and rammed down your freshly guillotined throat.
The way the film has been put together isn’t great either. In fact, it’s headache-inducingly sloppy, with too many fast-edit cuts, rotating cameras and flashing adjectives used by the media to describe Gale, giving the film the appearance of something edited in PowerPoint. Also, for most of the story I had assumed it was based on real life events, as the subject matter seemed realistic enough to be the case, but there were some end-of-Argo-like moments that, were this actually a true story, seemed hastily tacked on in an effort to increase the dramatic tension. As it turns out, these moments of annoyance were undeserved, as the plot is, I believe, entirely fabricated, but even so what initially seemed like an engaging and realistic account of a plausible tale became unbearable when a pet peeve of mine reared it’s ugly head when a car chase was interrupted by a speeding train blocking the path of the chaser.
Choose life 5/10

4 thoughts on “The Life of David Gale

  1. I didn't have the issues with this film that you did, other than the preachiness. And in this case, I agreed with it, so it didn't bother me as much as it might have.I'm not sure why you never heard of it before you saw it. It was quite well known over here. Maybe the marketing effort was just different in our countries, since this deals with the specifics of the American justice system.No, this wasn't based on a real event in particular, but in general many people have been put to death only for it to be learned later they were innocent. A supporter of the death penalty in my country once made the statement that "no more than 200 innocent people were executed in the 1900s" – and he was completely in earnest that this was a *good* thing, that the number was that low.

  2. I've discovered from listening to various podcasts that there's an awful lot of films that are fairly well known in America, but no-one here seems to have heard of them. Things like A Christmas Story, Sling Blade and The Sandlot all seem to be infamous in the States, but I can't find people over here that have ever come across them.

  3. It works both ways. I saw St. Trinian's about a year ago. I knew nothing about it other than it was a bunch of hijinks from schoolgirls. As it went along I kept recognizing more and more performers and wondered why they were all in this little movie. I only found out later that St. Trinian's is a decades old institution in the U.K., with many movie versions preceeding this. I had never heard of it before in my life. I saw that a sequel was made, and since I liked the first enough to be curious, I tried to watch the second. No dice. It has never even been released in any format here in the U.S.

  4. Firstly, don't bother with the sequel, it's utter tosh and most of the first film's principle cast wasn't involved. Secondly, the modern sequel is the only St. Trinian's film I've ever actually seen (and that was against my will), so it's far less of an institution than you might believe. It's more of a black spot on the UK cinema history, along the lines of the Carry On films or Holiday On the Buses. Apparently there are some worthwhile films in the collections, but not enough to make up for all the rubbish. And I hadn't heard of St. Trinians either until the last day of school, when it was tradition for the girls to dress up in a similar fashion to the characters, although I can't imagine too many of them knew what they were dressing up as, as much as they just enjoyed not having to wear school uniform for the day (although in my year they were all sent home to get changed).

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