THE LIFE OF DAVID GALE
A lot of reviewers have criticized the The Life of David Gale
for being too one-sided and preachy. I don't really have a problem with a film being one-sided. There's nothing wrong with having a point-of-view, especially about an issue you feel passionate about. No, my problem is not that the film attempts to stack the deck against the death penalty, but that it does so with such utter incompetence. In a film where all the "smart" people are against the death penalty and all of its advocates portrayed as redneck idiots, you'd think that someone could articulate a coherent and persuasive argument against state-sponsored executions. Hell, I'd have even taken a preachy argument. Instead, the film is premised on the ridiculous notion that one of the most persuasive arguments against the death penalty is one that can't be made. Many SPOILERS
While helping David Gale prepare for a debate with the governor of Texas, Constance Halloway (Laura Linney) his professor colleague at the "University of Austin" (I like to think that the University of Texas refused to permit its name to be associated with this dreck, even while allowing scenes to be shot on its campus) and the eventual murder victim, tells him not to make the argument that innocent people are sentenced to death. If he points to anyone who's innocence was discovered prior to execution, the governor will simply say that's proof that the system works -- like that's an answer for which there is no response. Highly educated death penalty opponents, much sharper than the yokel of a governor, could not possibly respond that DNA proof of innocence is, in fact, evidence of the failure of the jury system and appellate courts and that exoneration of someone who has been wrongly incarcerated for most of his adult life and is exonerated not through any state-sponsored effort but only as the result of private initiatives such as the Innocence Project is hardly evidence of the success of the system and that such cases should give us great pause about the hundreds of death penalty cases where there is no DNA evidence. No, that argument would not occur to anyone in this movie. Instead, we're told that the only way to convincingly make the "innocence" argument is to identify a person who's innocence is not discovered until after execution. "Almost martyrs don't count." Okay, my second problem with the reviews of this film is the suggestion that the "twist" in this film, after the point this argument is made, is at all surprising. It's surprising only if the film has bored you into such a stupor that you're not thinking right and because the twist is so stupid you wouldn't ordinarily think of it.
My third problem with the reviews of this film are those that suggest that this is a pretty decent thriller until it gets derailed by a bad ending. No, no, no, no, no. Arlington Road
and True Crime
were pretty decent thrillers that got undermined by bad endings. David Gale
is an absolutely feeble, bankrupt, horrible film from the very outset. Kate Winslet's character works for a magazine called "News," because the writers obviously shot their creative naming wad on Winslet's reporter: Bitsey Bloom. When Bloom and her extraneous cohort are driving to the penitentiary, she remarks, "You know you're in the bible belt when there are more churches than Starbucks." I think we're supposed to chuckle in sympathy at that comment. Now, I'm not religious and have a healthy distrust of organized religion, but you'd have to be extraordinarily arrogant not to recognize the inanity of that remark and how it feeds into every cliched perception of the elitist, northern liberal snob. Which would be fine if we're supposed to think that way about Bloom. But she's our heroine and I think we're supposed to like her or at least think that she's fair minded.
If David Gale
fails as a polemic, it fails even worse as a thriller. There are two supposed twists to the ending. Both come as a great big "duh." Halloway was killed by being handcuffed, forced to swallow the key and a plastic bag taped over her head so that she suffocates, a technique that Gale had written about in one of his articles, although the prosecutors didn't know this. It's metaphoric -- you die knowing that the key to your freedom is inside you. (Groan.) She's bruised and they find semen inside her (Gale's) and Gale's thumb print is found on the plastic bag, so it's presumed to be a rape/murder. No motive, at least for the way the crime was supposed to have happened, is given for Gale's murder of his best and only friend in the world. It turns out that Halloway, who was dying of leukemia, killed herself and with the help of her cowboy friend, another death penalty opponent, videotaped the whole thing. The idea was that after someone gets executed, the tape will surface, and death penalty opponents will be able to point to an innocent person who's innocence was not discovered in time. Yeah, that's good. That's gonna be convincing. A couple of death penalty opponents framing an innocent person just so they can say "Aha, gotcha!" later is gonna lend a lot of credibility to their position. No one's gonna think they're raving lunatics.
Okay, this is how Bloom solved the crime. The cowboy, who has been stalking her and extraneous cohort for no apparent reason (even by the end, there's no reason for it) leaves an excerpt of the videotape in her motel room. Oh, she thinks, the murderer must still be out there and have left the tape. But, Gale's attorney points out that the tape could be a complete phony (we can't see Halloway's face). His attempt to get a stay with it is, as expected, not successful. But, the night before the execution, when she observes the towel that extraneous cohort has thrown on the bathroom floor, because, after all, it's just a crappy motel room, she has an epiphany. The towel, for some reason, reminds her of the rubber gloves that the killer had used. These are the type of gloves women wear when washing the dishes. They weren't just thrown on the counter, they were turned inside out, something a housewife would do out of habit. So they go back to the scene of the crime, Halloway's house, which is being operated as a tourist trap by a goth Sookie from The Gilmore Girls
. Watching the videotape, Bitsey notices that Halloway doesn't immediately struggle. She's moves one leg, is still and then struggles. But they can't stop with their observation from the tape. No, they can't conclude from that that she wasn't acting like a normal person with a bag over her head, Bitsey has to reenact the crime. She actually puts duct tape over her mouth, tapes a bag to her head and handcuff herself. Not only does this confirm her belief that Halloway killed herself, it gives extraneous cohort an action moment when he rips the bag open. Yea! He has a purpose after all. But let's go back to the rubber gloves for a minute. I accept that we are all, under normal circumstances, creatures of habit. But am I supposed to believe that a woman who has just swallowed the key to handcuffs, duct taped her mouth and taped a plastic bag over her head is going to pause and turn her rubber gloves inside out before handcuffing herself. Somehow I think the sequence of events might take her out of her normal routine. So Bitsey, with the assistance of less extraneous cohort, breaks into cowboy's house and finds what is supposedly the rest of the tape that clearly shows Halloway killing herself. She races to Huntsville penitentiary, but we already know that her car is going to break down and she won't make it from a flash forward at the beginning of the movie. (Nice move, Parker.)
The film spends a lot of time establishing what a pile of crap Gale's life had become by the time of Halloway's murder. His adulterous wife had left him, taken his son to Spain and sold their house. As a result of a false accusation of rape by a student, he has lost his job, money, sobriety and respect -- even the DeathWatch gang won't have him any more. I guess this helps to explain why the police found him a plausible suspect, but it is even more in service of the final non-surprise. Bitsey gets the whole tape in the mail, and it shows Gale turning off the camera. Wow, I didn't see that coming. Up until then I was thinking that this good, saintly woman framed her best friend for murder and execution, without his involvement. Because there had been all sorts of character development that would support that conclusion. Not. (Yes, this film is so bad I do not consider it beneath my sarcasm.)
My fourth problem with the reviews of David Gale
is the idea that it is in any way redeemed by good performances. I'm not surprised at Spacey. Ever since American Beauty
, he's been chasing really bad, Oscar bait roles. I thought Winslet usually made better choices, but then she has been dating Sam Mendes lately. I am surprised, at Linney who's one of my favorite actresses. She does a good job, but no one can rise above this material. Spacey does not do a good job. He is completely unconvincing as a family man. There may be actors who can credibly utter the line "see you later alligator." Spacey is not one of them. Except for one key scene, in which she stinks, Winslet is inoffensive in what is a pretty bad role.
Shroom suggested that I draw a comparison to Irréversible
which I also saw recently. There is at least one point of comparison. Irréversible
contains a controversial, realistic, nine minute rape scene. In an interview in Salon
, the director Gaspar Noé, when asked why nine minutes, responds that's how long it would be in real life. There's some validity to that point of view: it would arguably be more exploitative to minimize the brutality of the scene through temporal reduction. There is nothing prurient about the scene -- only deviants will find the scene anything other than disturbing and repulsive. Compare this with the snuff film in David Gale
, which gets played over and over again. It's a video of a completely naked woman (presumably Linney), with a bag over her head who quietly suffocates to death. There is no bloodshed. In an attempt to convey the horror of the image, director Alan Parker has Winslet cry when she views the tape the first time. She's completely unconvincing. And I suspect that more than a few men, when watching the scene, thought, "Linney has pretty good tits." That's exploitation.
By the way, while I was not offended by the violence in Irréversible
, I didn't like the film. I didn't hate it. It held my attention and told its simple story reasonably effectively. But other than revulsion at the two extreme scenes of violence, the film didn't make me feel and it didn't make me think. Shroom said to me that such indifference is the most damning reaction one could have to a film like Irréversible
that wants to be provocative. I guess he's right about that.