Judge Mike Pinsky may have been able to stomach this movie if Kate Winslet hadn't been playing a character named Bitsey.
"Hate's no fun if you keep it to yourself."—Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet)
What happened to Kevin Spacey? Back in his early days on the b-list, Spacey was a hard working actor who excelled at characters with baby faces and dark hearts. From Mel Profitt on Wiseguy to Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects to John Doe in Se7en, he earned every shiver from the audience and accolade from the critics.
But then Spacey made the a-list and began to let sentiment guide his roles, playing for immediate audience reaction rather than exploring the real depths of the characters. Pay It Forward. K-PAX.. Spacey as the good guy always never seemed as effective as Spacey as the bad guy.
And now, there is The Life of David Gale. Spacey's Gale might seem a dark character for all of two minutes: a former death-penalty abolitionist now on death row for the rape-murder of his colleague. However, it quickly becomes apparent that screenwriter Charles Randolph (a former philosophy professor and evangelical activist) and director Alan Parker (who already whitewashed the Civil Rights movement in Mississippi Burning) have concocted an awkward fusion of Dead Man Walking and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. In other words, they have taken a complex and contentious issue and cleaned it up by making its hero altogether too perfect for the audience. Gale is a Harvard-educated Rhodes Scholar who can make intellectual opacity simple for his students (who knew Jacques Lacan could be such fun?), is cute enough to get seduced by a student, and runs rhetorical circles around his conservative adversaries. As viewers of Hollywood movies, we are programmed to root for this white-bread hero, and get all teary-eyed at the thought that such a wondrous life is about to be wasted by the savages of the Texas judiciary. If Gale were black or blue-collar, there would be no movie here. Or maybe Gale would have to have magical powers to elevate him beyond race and class, like in The Green Mile.
But all The Life of David Gale needs is to point out that Gale is a white intellectual, and the real political problems behind the death penalty get swept behind the woodpile. Aw, we say, what a waste of genius. He must be innocent. And so, the "death row drama" begins its course according to Hollywood rules, as our requisite feisty reporter, who bears the comic-book name of Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet), races against time to save Gale from lethal injection. And I mean races: the film's climax even comes down to Bitsey running in silhouette down an empty road as Gale is marched to his execution.
But I was hanging my head in shame long before the movie got to this point. Yes, I have some serious qualms about the fairness of the death penalty. No, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with a movie having a political axe to grind. But The Life of David Gale tries to justify its righteous cause with cheap melodrama. Courageous New York liberals versus rabid Texas rednecks; heroic woman versus patronizing misogynists; crusading white hero railroaded by the system by a lifetime of false accusations. Alan Parker even deleted scenes from the film (included on this DVD with optional commentary track) that might make Gale look a little darker and more complex a character.
All the supplements on Universal's DVD release of The Life of David Gale keep up this pretense that the movie really has something profound to say, from the self-congratulatory featurettes (9 minutes on the death penalty in Texas, 17 minutes of fluff about the film's screenplay and actors, and 5 minutes about Parker's two sons writing the film's music) to the routine commentary track from Alan Parker. But none of this stuff can diminish the fact that The Life of David Gale really ends up making this whole subject seem rather shallow. Gale is too much of a sensitive innocent, Snow White persecuted by heartless bureaucrats. The plot twists are cheap and undermine the film's philosophical credibility. In spite of my own feelings about the death penalty issue, at the end of The Life of David Gale, I felt an overwhelming urge to strap this movie to a table and administer some punishment myself.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Alan Parker
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