U.S. Release Date: February 21, 2003
Distributor: Universal
Producer: Nicolas Cage
Cast: Kevin Spacey, Kate Winslet, Laura Linney, Melissa McCarthy
Running Time: 2 hours and 10 minutes
MPAA Rating: R (violent images, nudity, language and sexuality)

The Ultimate Liberal Thriller
by C.A. Wolski

One's reaction to The Life of David Gale is dependent on one's political and philosophical point of reference. For those moviegoers who are for the death penalty, the two hours or so they will waste watching Alan Parker's newest political diatribe will give them an idea of what it must be like waiting on death row—incessant boredom turning to a plea for a quick, clean ending. For those opposed to the death penalty, they will find The Life of David Gale a justification of ending what they see as the ultimate example of man's inhumanity to man—maybe.

On closer inspection, the ostensibly liberal thrill ride, which concerns the last days of philosophy professor and death row inmate David Gale, is almost a condemnation of those trying to end the practice. Gale and his colleagues at the liberal anti-death penalty group DeathWatch come off as the same kind of zealots that Parker seems to be deriding on the right—brass, rationalistic and stunningly irrational loudmouths who will do anything to further their cause.

That Gale (Kevin Spacey) is a philosophy professor is significant because he does put his life where his philosophy guides him—death row. After being convicted of killing fellow professor and DeathWatch activist Constance (Laura Linney in the most thankless role of her career), Gale patiently sits on death row until a few days before his execution when he requests ace magazine reporter Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet in an equally wasted performance) to hear his story. There are conditions. Bitsey's publication is to pay Gale's family $500,000, she is not to record the interview and, apparently, is to ask no questions and allow herself to be led around by the nose by the apparatus that put Gale on death row.

Gale's interview is played out in a series of depressing, emotionally hollow flashbacks, which chronicle his descent from superstar philosophy professor to accused rapist (he was set up) to alcoholic pariah to death row inmate. Along the way we also have to endure Bitsey's so-called investigation, which includes being handed videotape showing Constance's murder hours before Gale's execution.

To be fair every thriller has a level of contrivance, but the gimmicks have to be realistic within the universe of the movie. The contrivances here—Bitsey's annoying intern Zack amongst them—are unrealistic in any universe, filmic or not. What could have been an interesting character study of a condemned man's last days and how the media constructs reality is sacrificed for a political point—the death penalty is bad and we must go to any lengths to stop it.

For all its cynicism, the movie is philosophically consistent right down to the protracted ending. However, it's really hard to say, in the end, if Parker has performed a service for the Left or has contributed artistic evidence as to why so many conservative pundits deride them.

Technically, The Life of David Gale is well executed with decent editing and pacing in spots and a good soundtrack by Parker's sons. The problem is the writing and the acting. Like many Academy Award winners, Spacey is slowly developing a schtick that's poised to ruin his career down the line. Winslet has really nothing to do except be annoyed or terrified. Linney is the only one among the principals who gives something approaching an effective or affecting performance, but not enough to sustain the picture.

A word of warning, the movie contains a horrific murder scene—probably one of the most disgusting ones I've ever seen—showing a naked Linney writhing in agony as she suffocates to death. There are also two intense and rather callous sex scenes.

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