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Nik Huggins

Published January 1st, 2003 | by Nik Huggins

The Life of David Gale Review

Classification: 15 Director: Alan Parker Rating: 2.5/5

Fade up to a panoramic, low angle shot of the parched and dusty Texas countryside, a car racing across the screen, and we soon realise that The Life of David Gale; Alan Parkers’ follow up to Angela’s Ashes is a leap both historically and geographically for the acclaimed British Director.

Parker must have saved up all his holiday allowance from his position of being head of The Film Council, to take a few weeks off in the United States to take the helm of this pseudo-psychological thriller. Set amidst the contentious issue of capital punishment and its place in modern American society, the film adopts a parallel narrative structure (most of Gale’s life is told in flashback) to illustrate the plight of David Gale (Kevin Spacey), the story’s’ “wronged man”: Husband, Father, University Professor, Murderer. The initial premise is an enticing one: what if one of the country’s most high-profile Anti-capital punishment activists were to find himself transported to death row? Gale is only three days shy of his date with destiny and, for the sake of narrative tension, he has chosen this point in time (despite rotting on death row for years) to open himself up and reveal all, to none other than supposedly hardnosed, hotshot New York newshound Bitsy Bloom (Kate Winslet).

Bloom meets with Gale and acts as his sole confessor. He reveals the events leading up to his imprisonment and gives an insight into his relationship with the victim; confidante and fellow Deathwatch colleague Constance Harraway (Laura Linney). As the story is revealed, Bloom begins to develop a need to peel away the veneer surrounding his incarceration, becoming adamant that he has been framed. A lethal dose of tension and vigour is subsequently delivered to the narrative, as the events from the past retold, and Bloom’s investigations in the present are made to converge.

The Life of David Gale is postured as a film that has a lot of very important things to say, but it is simply a very run-of-the-mill thriller let down by a poor script and some overly flashy and cute directorial touches. The story, plainly told is an effective one, but it lacks much of the complexity that is promised. It seldom elevates itself higher than a standard Hollywood thriller, moreover on occasion it delves even lower, to resemble nothing less than a made for TV, Channel Five special.

Though rather clumsily initiated (choppy cuts between different words scrawled on blackboards and notepads indicate that we are going back in time again not unlike the spinning newspaper to denote the passage of time in old Hollywood flicks) the flashback sequences are not too annoying, and the overall structure is sound, if limp in places. The different timelines fire along at an equal pace, resonating similarities in mood and theme, which serve to frame the conclusion. We are given an insight into Gale’s fall from grace, starting at the beginning with his university lecturing and occasional television appearances. Here he is revealed to us as arrogant and egocentric, and he engineers’ much of his own discontent, without moral objection.

Throughout these scenes, the work of the Deathwatch organisation is foregrounded as the moral banner under which the entire narrative lies. Gale and Harraway between them operate the Texas branch, campaigning to eliminate the death penalty moralising about the civil liberties of death row offenders with a random smattering of subdued volunteers in tow, all the while setting up Gale’s impending criminality and hardening his descent. In this way it is quite irresponsible of such an unsubtle thriller to touch upon these controversial themes without serious exploration. Deathwatch is merely used as a cipher to make the trap that is set for Gale even more elaborate and damaging, we are given no long-lasting insight into this debate; Parker merely dips his toe in, showing the odd angry protest to justify its position in the film. Gale couldn’t simply be an ordinary guy. The sting had to be just that bit more painful.

Similarly we lack any true psychological insight into any of the characters, and as a result we feel very little for any of their interests. Gale is the only character that ever touches a degree of complexity in his numerous flirtations with the darker side of his nature, but his smug, sound bite lamentations from behind a glass screen only worsen his predicament with a sympathetic audience. If only Kate Winslets’ character were as elaborately fleshed out as her name suggests. Bitsy Bloom fails to make this unremarkable film blossom. She is set up with some early exposition as a tough and tenacious city reporter, hungry for the exclusive but unswervingly fair to her sources. Yet for all her investigative expertise it takes very little persuasion from Gale to utterly convince her of his innocence, thus setting her off on a zealous hunt to uncover the truth. In this way many of the characters make snap decisions (the most pivotal one in the entire film surrounding the murder is the most difficult to stomach) that seem incongruous with their nature, decisions which are, at times downright unbelievable. Undermined by a weak script that simply looks to cultivate a juicy pay-off in the final reel with the now obligatory jaw-dropping ending, the characterisation (so important to an effective and multi-faceted thriller) is paper-thin, letting down a potentially good cast.

The Life of David Gale mixes up a pungent sauce of elements that is smeared thinly over a bog-standard thriller that fails to rise at all. It is an all too common victory for style over substance, offering little emotional engagement. It is slick and self-consciously clever in its execution; and this constantly undermines any serious point it strives to make. Parker has remodelled a movie out of the worst elements of both the system and the specific genre and has failed to pad them out with any degree of intricacy, originality or depth. With such a powerful and high profile exponent of the Hollywood formula guarding the purse strings vital to new talent in the UK, how can we hope for anything more than the continuing trend for British facsimiles of this dull American product?

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