THE LIFE OF DAVID GALE is a great idea for a movie. Unfortunately, its fine direction by Alan Parker and excellent acting from a cast headed by Kevin Spacey is undercut by a script that would, charitably, receive a C+ in Screenwriting 101 for Charles Randolph. How it made it to the big screen in this form I can only attribute to the good will of all involved and a deep-seated dislike on their part of the death penalty.
Make no mistake about it, this is advocacy filmmaking. Alas, it lacks the depth of DEAD MAN WALKING. In it we have the eponymous David Gale, a popular college professor in Austin, Texas. Tenured at 27, generally considered one of the countrys top intellectuals, and an anti-death penalty advocate. Hes also going through a rough spot in his marriage, what with his lanky blonde wife jetting off to Barcelona with her paramour and her escapade being the talk of the campus. Its given him a little drinking problem, one that leads to impaired judgment and a brief but boisterous encounter with an ex-student during a party. Before you can say oops, hes been charged with rape, his wife has left for good, and even though the charges are dropped, his teaching career is over. Still on his side, though, is Constance, the stereotypical plain-Jane gal-pal of a fellow professor and activist, though with Laura Linney, she may be less than chic, but shes never less than sharp and interesting. Naturally, Constance, with whom he has a chastely affectionate relationship, is the one hes been convicted of raping and killing, for which crime he will be executed in four days.
If theres a cliché that Randolphs missed, I cant think what it is. The film begins with intrepid report Bitsy Bloom (Kate Winslet and no, Im not making up that name) racing against across the desolate Texas countryside, video cassette in hand. Could it be anything but the vital piece of evidence that will save Gale? I could tell you its something more subtle, but Id be lying and that would be wrong.
But I digress
The screen then fades to flashback how it all began four days earlier as Bitsy gets the scoop of a lifetime in the form of a death house interview with Gale, the first hes ever given. Shes hard-bitten, cynical, and more than a little put out by her chain-smoking intern, the one we have to have as an expository device. Of course Gale tells his story, and of course other than a few minor failings, that drinking thing, for example, he is Saint David, the loving father, the patient cuckold, the fabulous teacher, and never from anywhere is there the tiniest of dark mutterings about him. So much for texture or ambiguity. Naturally, Bitsy goes from professional journalistic detachment to Gales number one supporter. And thats before the mysterious tape shows up in her motel room, which, when played, shows Constance breathing her last on her kitchen floor.
You can pretty much see where the story is going within the first 20 minutes of its almost two-hour running time. The only twist is why Spaceys character isnt made darker, so that we could have something to chew on instead of wondering whether or not were supposed to be wondering who did what and when. As for Bitsy, Winslet shows that pretty can be smart and tough, too, but the script calls for her to figure out the scheme (you knew there had to be one) when she sees a towel thrown on the floor. Trust me, its not a logical leap. Neither is having the tape delivered to her two days before the scheduled execution when any chance of her glomming onto whats going on behind the scenes will mess up the plan. If the people behind the plan wanted it messed up, theyd send the tape elsewhere, like the police. Red herrings are thrown in an attempt to throw us off, but though they are bright and shiny, they fail to distract.
Now heres what really ticks me off. Spacey, as always, gives a terrific performance. You believe him when hes father-of-the-year tucking his five-year-old into bed, you believe him when hes succumbing to vicious co-ed, you even believe him when he wanders Austin in a drunken stupor complaining that that Aristotle was a prissy dresser. You just cant believe he didnt ask for a re-write. This is the guy, after all, who pulled off the twist in THE USUAL SUSPECTS. He even pulled off the twist in CONSENTING ADULTS, a film that was way beneath his talent.
But I digress. Again.
THE LIFE OF DAVID GALE does give us a clue early one as to what we might be in for. As we see Bitsy (oh, why that name?) in her editors office, we clearly see that his name, emblazoned on the door, is Malarkey. Coincidence? You be the judge.