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Overall Rating

Awesome: 20%
Worth A Look: 23.16%
Average: 7.37%
Pretty Bad28.42%
Total Crap: 21.05%

6 reviews, 59 user ratings

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Life of David Gale, The
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by Jack Sommersby

"A Death-Penalty Drama That Deserves to Get the Chair"
2 stars

Despite Kevin Spacey's remarkable performance, this ranks as one of the year's biggest disappointments.

The Life of David Gale -- which might just be the nuttiest film of the year -- functions as both a character study and a mystery, and if the filmmakers had only concentrated on the former and abandoned the latter altogether they might have come up with a provocative, admirable piece of work. As it's turned out, though, it's a vile and ludicrous cinematic miasma: the kind that bombs at the box office and exists as an ugly stain on the resumes of both its cast and crew. The film's got a hell of a set-up: A former death-penalty opponent (played by Kevin Spacey) has been sitting on death row in the state of Texas for seven years for the killing of a fellow activist (Laura Linney); in three days his execution date is set, and he's granted an exclusive interview with a New York reporter (Kate Winslet) to give his side of the story. Given our exposure to similar films, we presume Spacey's innocence from the onset, that he's been framed by the very same people responsible for carrying out his punishment, and that Winslet will come across key evidence on the very day of execution and rush to expose it before Spacey is terminated. Well, two out of three of these turn out to be true, which is not really giving anything away because the screenwriter, Charles Randolph, isn't really concerned with them -- he's got another agenda on his mind, and it's this that fatally derails the film. The Life of David Gale is so innately screwed-up that it exists as one of those rare films that would have actually benefited had it been thoroughly cliched rather than only occasionally so, because at least the audience could have favorably responded had the filmmakers breathed some fresh life into the cliches (as Clint Eastwood and company did in the underpraised True Crime). Contrary to what those involved in it may think, the film isn't original because of its original final twist; it's just a familiarly-structured film with a surprise pulled out of a hat in the end, and it's anything but magical.

For a little while, the film is good fun, as Spacey wakes himself up after a recent string of low-key, beat-out characterizations to play the impassioned David Gale. An activist and a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, David has been written as super-intelligent and brazen, and Spacey plays him to the hilt. The academic scenes at the beginning are the best, where we see David effortlessly mesmerize his students with an assuredness that commands attention yet vividly conveys the context of what he's teaching -- he's not one of those professors whose classes you fall asleep in. But his intelligence has started giving way to a good deal of arrogance, and it gets him into considerable trouble. In a television debate with the governor of Texas, he's going along fine, masterfully ripping his opponent apart until he violates a cardinal rule of debate by making an accusatory statement without the facts to back it up. And with a trial separation with his wife leaving him both frustrated and lonely, he lets his guard down at a faculty party in allowing a former disgruntled student to seduce him into some rough sex in the host's bathroom. The next day, the girl accuses him of rape, he's arrested, the girl recants her accusation, but the damage has been done -- his wife and young son go overseas for good, his professorship is terminated, as is his association with his activist organization. David's hit rock-bottom in what seems to be the blink of an eyelash, and Spacey conveys the man's anguish very discreetly, very tactfully. He never emotes, never pushes for one unearned ounce of pathos; he's burrowed himself so deeply inside this fascinating character that the film can afford to take it slow when he's on-screen. Spacey manages to convey a lot while seeming to be doing very little, and it's an immense pleasure in watching a virtuoso actor working at the top of his game. This is his finest performance since his Oscar-winning work in 1999's otherwise-deplorable American Beauty (though I still retain a semi-affectation for his world-whipped Quoyle in the lovely The Shipping News).

Spacey's performance penetrates and hurts and would have been ripe for a ninety-minute film involving simply the aforementioned details. But Kate Winslet's character of Bitsey Bloom (the worst character name assigned to an actress since Sandra Bullock's "Cassie Mayweather" of the awful Murder by Numbers from last year) keeps obstructing things. She has three basic functions here: one, to initially doubt David's claim of innocence; second, to have her cynical side changed upon believing him; third, to uncover evidence. The first two are, of course, unnecessary since the character is more of a plot device than an organic character, so any emotional progression on her part adds up to moot in the end; the third is completely bogus not only because she's never in any actual danger while carrying this task out but due to the out-of-left-field surprise ending, which doesn't invalidate the evidence but, too, is for moot being that audience members privy to it still aren't going to be able to figure the ending out. What's the point of putting Bitsey through the paces of a damsel in distress when there's no valid threat? Why has David lead Bitsey (and the audience) to believe there's someone else responsible for the crime without providing so much as a single logical suspect? The filmmakers come across as hopelessly obtuse, as if they'd watched countless mysteries and whodunits without retaining the knowledge of what makes them function; instead of throwing in a few valid thrills, they toss in a couple of banalities instead -- a rental car that conks out less than an hour before the execution, and an intern (Gabriel Mann) assigned to Bitsey so she doesn't have to convey story information to us via tape recorder. And the talented Winslet, in a zero of a role, compounds the problem by giving a surprisingly bland, uncommunicative performance. There isn't a moment when we're glad she's around. (Winslet may have fared better had she injected a little campiness into the role to help offset its off-the-rack mediocrity.)

The Life of David Gale is no more concerned with delving into the always-timely topic of capital punishment any more than True Crime was, but at least Eastwood's film worked as grand entertainment because it filled in the originality holes with colorful characters, wonderfully rich dialogue, and a white-knuckle grand finale. The overriding problem with The Life of David Gale is that it shuns vital conventionalities of its genre without replacing them with anything worthy; it's like an elephantine pinata with fruit instead of candy inside or a rollercoaster ride without any curves or dips. (At least the much-maligned 1995 thriller Just Cause, which also dealt with a death-row inmate, was as equally entertaining as it was shamelessly manipulative.) If you're going to make a film that promises thrills without delivering any, then you damn well better be able to alleviate this handicap by making some pertinent observations about the subject matter at hand. But since the story here seems to have been built from the surprise ending on out, and not the other way around, every facet of the story, thus, had to be carefully aligned to match up to support that ending; so, instead of giving full body to any themes or ideas, the filmmakers have painted themselves into quite the artistic corner of having to glide over instead of giving proper shaping to them because they're essentially non-essentials in getting from point A to B and so on and finally to that almighty final twist at the end. Even that gets fouled up, though. There is a conspiracy going on, as it turns out, only it's being administered by a party you don't expect, but it's so jaw-droppingly implausible and just plain Loony Tunes that it's hard to swallow that an actual real-life person could not only think it up but actually go through with it. To give you an idea of just how irrefutably screwy it is, it doesn't even manage to expose a flaw in the capital-punishment system as intended, and not even one in the legal- or law-enforcement system, either.

This laughable exercise in cinematic high-mindedness comes across as if the people involved in it didn't think the material through on even the most elemental level. You can easily spot the snafus, but aside from Spacey's remarkable performance you're hard pressed at coming up with any positives worth raving over. Which is a shame of any film directed by the eclectic Alan Parker, who's worked in just about every genre and who has been responsible for some wonderful accomplishments like Shoot the Moon, Birdy, Angel Heart, and Mississippi Burning. Considering that Parker was working with his usual team -- cinematographer Michael Seresin, production designer Geoffrey Kirkland, editor Gerry Hambling -- it's perplexing just how visually undistinguished and impersonally paced The Life of David Gale is; it comes off less like a personal film made by passionate people like its lead character and more of a project-for-hire by a group of has-beens. I can maybe see what Parker was going for in making a plain-looking production bereft of the kind of showy camerabatics that could call our attention to the film as such and away from the "realism" he's trying to conjure up; but this leaves little for the audience to enjoy or respond to because this is a film that looks like a made-for-TV movie with TV-depth characters with all the information relayed to us on a pandering-down-to TV-like level. Parker's never been one for subtlety -- his most odious film was the overstated, overblown Midnight Express, which went to all aesthetic lengths to make a grandiose fable about a drug smuggler having a tough time of it in a Turkish prison -- so the absence of complex observations on both sides of the death-penalty issue doesn't come off as too much of a surprise. It's just wrong, according to the film, and the supporters of it are close-minded, amoral, or merely Texans (or all three). Parker doesn't bother to examine whether executions are any more just than murders committed by criminals, or if capital punishment actually does what its backers contend -- that it, in the long term, causes violent crime to statistically decrease.

Maybe Parker figured that every American is either for or against the death penalty, so he could forget about anybody who might be middle-of-the-road (like myself) who would've enjoyed an insightful mediation on the subject. Everything is either/or in The Life of David Gale, and so, with the desire to render everything as either black or white, Parker and screenwriter Randolph go to great lengths to strip the story of any relevant contexture which might bear contemplating. And they go one further by embarrassingly omitting a crucial relevancy for the sole sake of a cheap effect. When, in that televised debate, David comes off as the fool in getting one-upped by the governor when asked to provide the names of any death-row inmates he knows to be unjustly convicted, and he gets stumped, the scene makes absolutely no sense in light of the hundreds of recently suspended sentences of inmates proven innocent through DNA testing -- something even a non-expert like myself and millions of others are aware of. The film is so unfocused and uncertain as to what it's supposed to be about that, in the end, it may be shocking to some to read that Parker is against the death penalty, because the way the story plays out it might come across to some that he's making a point of the outrageous, illegal means activists are willing to go through to prove their cause. While 1996's Last Dance was compelling yet flawed, it at least kept things at a clear, proper perspective in incisively exploring whether convicted murderers are capable of growing into more emotionally caring, moral people while incarcerated, and, if so, should this constitute into an eventual pardon, and, if not, then what is the meaning of "rehibilitation" in correctional institutions? Like the wretched Basic, though, The Life of David Gale is all about its final surprise twist. In fact, the film is so quintessentially inane that upon learning that first-time screenwriter Charles Randolph used to teach philosophy for a living, you can't help but immediately sense it would have been a much better film and had made a lot more cohesive sense if only a math professor had written it instead.

As far-fetched and palpably absurd as anything you're apt to see.

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originally posted: 04/21/03 09:29:19
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User Comments

3/25/10 Dane Youssef Something about the whole product feel episodic and unfinished. Final twist ruins the movie 2 stars
7/11/07 fools♫gold Eh, percentages and "whatever" rates are all conspicuous lies. Oops!!! 5 stars
2/19/06 Chris Smith Those states w/o the death penalty had a lower murder rate BEFORE they stopped it! Oops!!! 2 stars
2/19/06 Chris Bordeman All they even prove is it's easy to frame yourself if you really want to. Whooptey doo!! 2 stars
5/23/05 theo stevens histionic but excellent portrayal of anti-death penalty fanatics 3 stars
4/02/05 Cynthia Willingham Easy to figure out, not believable at all 3 stars
3/24/05 Helen Bradley Great acting by Spacey and Winslet great script a thriller suprise ending 5 stars
12/04/04 Sam Worth while watching. give lots of facts and how a girl tries hard to saves david's life. 4 stars
10/28/04 Daveman This film is all over the place, needlessly didactic and hilariously overblown. 1 stars
10/11/04 Cinnamon There were parts of the movie that seemed boring, but the story had a good twist at the end 4 stars
7/16/04 nsb i loved this movie. thought it was very good. 5 stars
3/21/04 Pat ending was strange 3 stars
3/10/04 bsho76 Very unique film, keeps you guessing... 4 stars
2/12/04 Thomas Weiler One of my favorites 5 stars
12/16/03 marvin sucks 2 stars
11/03/03 Michele Darcis worthwhile seeing, keeps you guessing 4 stars
10/17/03 Lee Aclaimed Bad on so many levels; and why the numerous scenes of cars driving down the road? 1 stars
9/30/03 keshia king this movie is cool, and there are a lot of things that you don't think will happen but do.. 5 stars
9/27/03 Kimberly Jacobs I totally disagree with this EFC review. ONE OF THE BEST MOVIES I HAVE SEEN LATELY! 5 stars
9/21/03 Flick Chick anything with kevin spacey is good. 4 stars
9/21/03 Darryl Spacey is great, as always. And the plot twist will blow you away! 5 stars
9/19/03 Jinnvisible Good plot , alas actors, straining to poo the emotion ,Steven Spielturd?emotional overdrive 4 stars
9/14/03 Kyle I thought it was an above-average suspense movie. I didn't get bored at all. 4 stars
8/29/03 Ben J. Doko It might help each States to review their capital punishment law. 4 stars
8/26/03 mark thomas it SUCKS! 1 stars
8/25/03 JUN Story to be too thin and predictable 2 stars
8/18/03 Alberto Well i thought the movie was great. 5 stars
8/14/03 Jeannie Karlsen This movie left me in tears. Excellent in every way. 5 stars
8/05/03 Piz Well-played thriller that did seem far-fetched. Had potential to be a tense nailbiter 4 stars
8/02/03 Matt Helm The trailer convinced me not to see it ... ever. So does this count? 1 stars
8/01/03 Doc Shock Predictable. 2 stars
7/24/03 Kecia good movie,but what happened to him was wrong. 4 stars
6/06/03 Brendan L I guessed the ending after fifteen minutes, got to love that!! 3 stars
5/20/03 Shadaan Felfeli Good performances.At times the story seems unnecessarily convoluted. Definately worthwhile. 4 stars
5/20/03 your worse goddamn nightmare The plot was pretty good. To I wish the flick had some competant cinematographer... ... ... 4 stars
4/17/03 Hussain Dada Amazing movie, but appears more fictitious than a true life story. 4 stars
4/10/03 Natalie Stonecipher (aka anti-anti-missile missile missile) Killing to show that killing to show that killing is wrong is wrong is wrong! 1 stars
4/09/03 Tiffany Thunderhurst Looks awesome until too many twists involute it into farcedom. 3 stars
3/11/03 Bentley Clark Let go of the politics and enjoy the mystery!! 4 stars
3/11/03 Krista Ann Amazing movie. Must see! 5 stars
3/10/03 andrew j saw it with three adults could not follow the movie slow wait for tv showing 2 stars
3/04/03 Nancy N. insults the intelligence (and the ethics) of the anti-death penalty group 2 stars
3/02/03 Jack Sommersby Spacey is outstanding; the film is simply ludicrous. 2 stars
3/01/03 WestcoastPunk Spacey is a god 5 stars
2/28/03 stud A GREAT FILM 5 stars
2/27/03 larry diek though it was great! fuck everyone else 5 stars
2/26/03 James S. Fritz OK movie but flawed by illogical plot twists and holes 3 stars
2/26/03 Eberto E. Soto Jr A Great Film about our judicial system and the extent that people would do to be heard. 5 stars
2/26/03 Poetchuck Good whodunit 5 stars
2/25/03 icemltr You misdjudged it; great story of the debate over death penalty, great acting and suspense 5 stars
2/25/03 Mister Bigglesworth Rush Limbaugh bet Michael Moore couldn't direct comedy! Leftist, rightist, all the samist! 1 stars
2/25/03 Stephanie I felt depressed and unhappy after seeing this movie. I wondered why they even made it. 1 stars
2/24/03 Cele Cinema Whether or not you agree with the politics, a nail biter. 4 stars
2/23/03 Ryan FB Predictable, banal, trite, hackneyed, and condescending. One of the worst films ever. 1 stars
2/23/03 brentyoung some people misunderstand the movie's point & call it "confusing." it's not;it'sbrilliant. 5 stars
2/22/03 bob leather jacket I disagree with the message from the movie, Criminals need to be put to death 3 stars
2/21/03 oki Armando very inteligent story 5 stars
2/20/03 Ingo Convetional story, clever outlined. Spacey in a deadlock as an actor? 4 stars
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  21-Feb-2003 (R)



Directed by
  Alan Parker

Written by
  Charles Randolph

  Kevin Spacey
  Kate Winslet
  Laura Linney
  Gabriel Mann
  Matt Craven
  Rhona Mitra

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