The Life of David Gale

(2003) ** R
130 min. Universal. Director: Alan Parker. Cast: Kevin Spacey, Kate Winslet, Laura Linney, Gabriel Mann, Matt Craven.

The life of David Gale and the movie The Life of David Gale take many twists and turns. I can't reveal the nature of the former--except to say that the movie-hinging twist is fatally evident in the first half hour--but the latter revs up with false-ringing dialogue, briefly finds its footing in the parlance and self-righteously haughty culture of academia, then settles once and for all into preposterous plotting and thriller cliches. Along the way, director Alan Parker can lay claim to punchy trickery of camera and editing, as well as the most disturbing sexual scenes seen in a mainstream film in quite some time. In sum, The Life of David Gale adds up to a watchable but rather bizarre parable which refuses to commit to a definitive tone.

Red flags go up as soon as we meet David Gale, as tailored to Movie Star Kevin Spacey. Of late, Spacey has become especially self-conscious as a screen performer, and his increasingly hands-on development of his own roles does little to ameliorate the effect (in fact, Spacey inherits this project from Nicholas Cage, who retains producer credit). Gale, unusually articulate for an anti-hero, offers Spacey a well-scripted philosophy lecture but also a distractingly showy alcoholic lecture delivered to himself on a busy sidewalk by night. Let's call it a draw.

Gale is on death row in Texas, carefully submitting himself to three interviews with News magazine reporter Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet). As it has been, is, and ever shall be in Hollywood death row dramas, the accused stirs up doubts as to his guilt, and ghosts of a crime resurface. Then the two characters on either side of the shatter-proof glass must a) do the dance of death, b) face, intensely, difficult thoughts and feelings, and c) separate from each other in an operatically traumatic resolution.

Opera is on Parker's mind. In the end, we follow a character into one, seemingly as an stylistic excuse for the overblown details of this overtly theatrical mystery. Dead Man Walking this ain't. The spectre of that immaculate (if also liberal leaning) death row drama flutters in every misguided frame. Parker's film pays consistent lip service to the issues while talking out of the other side of its thriller mouth. Using spinning note montages to take us in and out of the past, Parker and screenwriter Charles Randolph prove they're capable of stylistic flourish and clever (juxtaposing the notes Gale's students take with the notes Bloom must take on Gale's equally pointed three-day lecture). Nevertheless, the early reveal of Gale's book--Dialogical Exhaustion--proves prescient.

In stretches, The Life of David Gale is enjoyable as a tingling discourse or tabloid melodrama. Winslet's confident presence is welcome, and Laura Linney's fearlessness as a rawly emotional death penalty protestor charges much of the film. Death-penalty detractors will undoubtedly be moved by the self-sacrifice of their on-screen counterparts, but even more repelled by their scarily incommensurate behavior. Ultimately, the memory of Gale's lecture about our propensity for self-deluding fantasy for its own tantalizing sake--be careful what you wish for!--proves the final clue that solves the mystery of this curious failure. Plainly, this is not real life.

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