Monday, May 21, 2007

The Life of David Gale

"The Life of David Gale"

USA. 2003. Directed by Alan Parker; Written by Charles Randolph; Starring: Kevin Spacey, Kate Winslet, Laura Linney, Rhona Mitra and Matt Craven.

Rating: 0 stars

Warning: Although I think this is a useless movie that is not worth anybody’s time, I will still issue this warning that this review explicitly talks about the ending and thus contains spoilers.

The ending of a movie can elevate a movie to the next level or just maintain the status quo to drive home a salient point, whether it is predictable or unpredictable. Unfortunately, it also has the capability of sucking all the positive energy out of the movie, particularly in the resolution of a mystery and when it is dealing with a serious issue.

Such is the case with “Life of David Gale,” a film that is so shamelessly irresponsible about its subject that you stop thinking about the movie and start wondering what the filmmakers were thinking while shooting and playing the scene. Here is a movie that pigeonholes an important topic of debate as capital punishment into the round pegs of a neat and twisty ending all for the sake of a cheap shock. Yeah, I was surely appalled at its moral bankruptcy and ignorance towards actually taking a side.

How can such good actors as Kevin Spacey and Kate Winslet and a talented director like Alan Parker who made “Mississippi Burning” make such a careless piece of garbage? Did they read the script and think that a surprise thriller ending is an appropriate way to end a movie dealing seriously with the death penalty?

The movie starts off well enough as we see Texan college professor and anti-death penalty activist David Gale (Kevin Spacey) on trial for murdering a fellow activist, Constance Harraway (Laura Linney). A plucky reporter named Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet) questions him to see what really happened. And as we dig deeper into his past, we find bits and pieces of his life as we see how he was accused of sexually harassing a student and was fired and ostracized. Then, we see that he may be set up for this whole crime.

The acting is strong and there is palpable tension in the beginning passages and Spacey and Winslet are never less than convincing even if the latter's character is really a cliché. Alan Parker is a director capable of bringing light to important subject matter as he did with the civil rights movement in “Mississippi Burning," although he gets no points in this film for subtlety as in the heavy-handed race-against-the-clock scene where Bitsey is literally running in a graveyard filled with white crosses.

Dramatic films can use the suspense thriller format effectively to tackle a serious issue and convey an cogent argument. Michael Mann’s “The Insider” and Steven Spielberg’s "Munich" are both great, skillful examples of this. However, it should artistically never lose sight of its ultimate goal to either argue strongly for a buried message like “The Insider” or spark a salient question of debate like “Munich.”

This movie just sends its ending colliding head on with everything it has developed and blows itself up into smithereens. Essentially, the film that purported to be against the death penalty ends up underscoring the insanity of its protesters. This is where I am going to get more explicit with the third act developments so don’t read on if you somehow still want to see this movie.

So we see that fellow activist and professor, Constance Harraway was an even stronger activist than he was and he denies any involvement in her murder. So then the movie provides one plot twist when Bitsey finds out that he was not involved through a videotape showing Constance tying herself up naked and killing herself after she was grief-stricken and wanted to end the pain she would suffer from leukemia. Unfortunately, Bitsey is too late to present this evidence to this film and David is executed.

Then, the movie reveals its incredibly loopy final piece. Bitsey receives the uncut videotape sent by David showing that he knew about the whole thing and he was right there watching and supporting Constance committing suicide and he tells her to keep it secret. I presume that he was trying to make himself a martyr and poster boy to show how faulty the justice system in Texas to show how the justice system charges forward with administering the death penalty without gathering enough evidence.

But does he think that this videotape will remain a secret with Bitsey when she is a reporter? More importantly, the internal moral logic behind this strategy is completely flawed and fundamentally baseless: essentially committing a crime (supporting someone else’s death) and embracing death to prove the point of life? You can make a sacrifice for something you believe in but this act is preposterous irony to the point of destroying what you stand for since he didn’t just sacrifice himself but a friend’s too. David is only off the hook for his wrongdoing at least from the justice system because he is dead.

I guess both David and Constance are supposed to be such strong-willed activists but they are radically insane here to destroy their lives to use assisted suicide to criticize capital punishment. Furthermore, Bitsey would never keep any of this a secret to herself, which would discredit everything he has done. Since everything in the mystery was leading up to this ludicrous conclusion, nothing in the film, no matter how well done, is worth paying attention to.

There are far more brilliant films both for and against the death penalty. Tim Robbin’s great “Dead Man Walking,” about a Catholic nun trying to get a death row inmate to admit to his own crimes, is one example against and “The Executioner’s Song” is one example for. I am personally against the death penalty but I can at least respect and admire a strong argument a movie or book makes on the other side.

“The Life of David Gale,” on the other hand, is a thoughtless exploitation exercise. The fact that this movie is set in Texas, where this issue is most controversial and notorious, only adds great insult to injury. I initially thought that this film was confused about its subject but I realize that it didn’t really care to think enough to raise a question to be troubled about in the first place. If it wants to be a slick dramatic thriller, then why not simply be one instead of bastardizing a worthy subject along the way? Or take responsibility in its own cause and artistry.

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