Let's start by clearing up a common misconception: Despite an uninspired and pretentious title that indicates to the contrary, The Life of David Gale is not a true story. Laughably, even the Austin Visitors Bureau posted on its web site that it's based on fact! (The film was shot at and around The University of Texas at Austin (my alma mater), dubbed The University of Austin in the film for soon-to-be-apparent reasons.) Now one would think that a story about an anti-death penalty activist who ends up on death row himself would jog some memories at the Bureau, but oh well. Maybe it's just wishful thinking. Not much of historical note has happened in Austin since Charles Whitman's shooting spree killed 16 people in 1966.
This is a movie meant to be a sophisticated take on criminal punishment, but unfortunately it's actually the kind of garden variety thriller that Hollywood pumps out with one thought: to keep you guessing what surprise The Big Twist will bring. Unconvinced? Recent garbage like High Crimes and Reindeer Games leap to mind. Same formula, same disastrous results.
Given its Oscar-class cast, I had high hopes for Gale. Kevin Spacey stars in the title role as a conflicted professor of philosophy: His wife is having an affair (in Spain, no less), and he's a borderline alcoholic to begin with. Neither of these situations is getting any better, and when a woman ends up viciously murdered (handcuffed and suffocated with a plastic bag), Gale -- an outspoken death penalty abolitionist -- is convicted of the crime and sentenced to die.
Enter Bitsey Bloom, crack reporter for NEWS magazine (people, I don't make this stuff up), played by Kate Winslet (in what one reader points out is her first film set in America, not including the first 10 minutes of Titanic). Bitsey is called in to get Gale's story on the eve of his execution -- and maybe, just maybe, we'll find out if he was framed.
It isn't long before nagging problems start cropping up in Gale, not the least of which is an intrusively bad editing style that inserts swirling close-ups of words like "guilt" and "murder" (with tribal backbeat, natch) whenever we move between the present-day interviews at the prison and the flashbacks to Gale's past. It's as out of place as the script, which -- overnight -- sends our tenured professor from his tony estate to the lowest-grade slum in town and screaming his way through downtown, drunk off his ass. Director Alan Parker (who also gave us the tragically bad Evita) knows his way around a camera, but first-time writer Charles Randolph's script is simply unsalvageable.
It all comes down to the meat of the story, which has Bitsey plodding and puzzling her way through an arduous two hour ordeal to figure out an ending that should be obvious to anyone within the first half hour of the film. The intellectual leaps she makes to rationalize her initial theories (which of course, she'll later figure out were wrong) should embarrass anyone with the capacity for rational thought. Our audience was howling in laughter at Winslet's over-emotional histrionics, and by the end, so was I.
If there's one bright spot in the film, it's Laura Linney, playing against type and seemingly channeling Nicole Kidman from The Hours. Her schoolmarm liberal character is clichéd, but she does the most she can with it. By the end, I had even more respect for her as an actress. As for everyone else involved with the production, well, I say let 'em fry.
Heavens to Bitsey!