Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Life of David Gale: We Get It, You Hate the Death Penalty

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In 2003, Alan Parker directed a movie that looks like it was made in the 1990s. It's the worst thing about this movie; for some reason, to me, it looks like it was shot ten years before it really was, and I can't put my finger on why. He also directed Angel Heart in the 1980s, which looks like it was made in the 80s, but set back in the day. Other than that, this film is a pretty fantastic crime-based sort-of-courtroom journalist drama starring Kevin Spacey as the titular character, a former professor on death row for murder and rape, Kate Winslet as a reporter with a dumb name sent to interview him the last three days before his execution, and Laura Linney as David Gale's best friend, and the woman he raped and murdered.

It's a pretty intense film with some unique twists and some surprises, though the Lady will attest that I called the basic gist of the final twist in the first half. It's a one-of-a-kind plot, and almost seems like something that could really happen. Most of the characters are interesting, the plot moves along swiftly, there are various twists, and there's lots of sex and violence, which is what all courtroom/crime dramas are really missing. Sure, there were some small pieces of the puzzle that I didn't guess, but the overall pucture itself was something I managed to figure out within the first, oh, I dunno, 45 minutes?

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The Life of David Gale follows Bitsey Bloom (told you that she has a dumb name), a reporter who is inexplicably called in to interview David Gale, a former Professor of Philosophy and head of the department of philosophy at the University of Austin. His marriage is strained, but he loves his young son. His friend Constance runs the local Death Watch, a protest group opposed to capital punishment and specifically the Texan proclivity for executions. He's accused of raping a grad student who was recently expelled due to poor attendance (apparently), and his life starts to fall apart. His wife leaves him, he descends into alcoholism, he loses his position in the university, his position in Death Watch, and virtually everything that means anything to him, except for his Harvard sweatshirt and his son's stuffed animal, which I believe is referred to as "Cloud Dog." Bitsey meanwhile gets closer to the cryptic truth through her interviews with David, and she and her intern Zack hang around the rural Texas town where the prison is located, and dealing with David's odd, podunk-ponytail lawyer Braxton Belyeu (Leon Rippy). As Gale's execution date looms, Bitsey gets as close to the truth as she's allowed until the right moment, where the truth is revealed at the last possible minute just before the credits roll.

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Apparently, this film was generally received negatively. It's certainly not because of the acting or directing, both of which are stellar and better than average, respectively. Perhaps it's the heavy-handed and nearly ham-fisted way the plot treats the opposition of the death penalty, and the exceptionally brutal manner in which the main characters treat it and react to it. While no clear resolution is ever really reached, there is a sense that Gale's initial point (that the system is flawed, and tries to prove that an innocent man can indeed make it through the awfully disastrous system) reaches some sort of attention. There is also the sense and idea that capital punishment can't be stopped, as Bitsey is sent on a wild goose chase from her interviews with Gale to prove he's innocent, only to have him meet his execution date anyway.

It certainly is suspenseful, and the twists are excellent, and Spacey and Linney are as good actors as they ever were. Spacey and Winslet's characters have a semi- Hannibal/Clarice relationship going, so strong that I expected him to greet her in the same manner when she first arrives at the prison. It never really does explain why he chooses/requests Bitsey to interview her, and I half-expected her to be involved in the twist, in some bizarre and vaguely-connected way. As far as we know, he just chose her because she refused to give up her source on a previous trial, even though her source was a supposed child molester (or something). The basic point is, she was part of the overall plot and twist after all, but probably not the way you think.

I don't think the film is terrible, unlike Roger Ebert, who usually has a pretty good handle on these kinds of things. It's kind of a strange bummer of a movie, though, but it apparently works out for the best in the end. Kevin Spacey plays the role well, swinging between the tacit and professional David Gale on death row, emotionally strained with his execution looming, and the chaotic, intelligent, angry, and very often drunk past version.

I give The Life of David Gale three drunken street-rants about Aristotle and Plato and various other philosophers with amusing insights into their fashion sense as well as their beliefs out of five, or three stupidly-named and vaguely annoying yet persistent and emotional journalists out of five.

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