Maybe I’ve lived in Texas too long. But it bothers me when Hollywood movies look down their nose at southern folk, writing us off as ill-mannered miscreants in desperate need of their much more enlightened protection. For a movie set so firmly in Texas, The Life of David Gale hasn’t a clue about the place where its story takes place. This is first and foremost a message movie, snobby and arrogant, blissfully ignorant of the realities of normal life. Yet, even though Gale is dead set on slandering my home as nothing but a prison state, it takes a few interesting twists along the road to pushing out its preachy propaganda.
Controversial reporter Bitsy Bloom (Kate Winslet) is called to Texas, to interview David Gale (Kevin Spacey), once the leading death penalty opponent in the state, and a man three days away from execution for the rape and murder of his colleague. Without bothering to research her subject, Bloom hops a plane to Houston, which as we all know is just a couple of miles away from Huntsville, one of the suburbs of the state capital in Austin. Right. So apparently director Alan Parker is a little weak on geography. That’s ok, because ace reporter Bitsy Bloom is also a little weak on journalism. In three days of interviews, she fails to ask Gale even one slightly insightful or useful question. Instead, Gale dallies around doling out information in a painfully slow and chronological fashion, where he waits until the last minute to tell her that he brought her in to prove his innocence. That’s ok I guess, since Gale himself is probably just a little weak on the whole time management thing. Not really an asset when you’re on death row, is it?
When not listening to Gale ramble about the unrelated sidetracks of his life, hack reporter Bitsy Bloom is off exploring the redneck world of Texas. Her nose for news leads her to take midnight potty breaks at roadside rest stops and to poke around in other creepy places where cliché scary cowboys can menace her in beat up pickup trucks. As director Alan Parker points out in the movie’s press notes, this film is a thriller, so you have to expect scary things to happen. From his comments, I very much suspect that Mr. Parker, who is “very much opposed to the death penalty” really only wanted to make a political statement with his flick, but threw in some thriller aspects, just because he had to if he wanted Hollywood funding. See, the idea here is to make you hate the death penalty. The problem is, David Gale makes a horribly weak-kneed case for it. If this is supposed to be a propaganda picture, it might be wise to craft an ending that actually proves your point.
Speaking of endings, this one’s a slam bang. Once you get past all the sticky snobbery populating the opening, Life of David Gale actually hits its stride to deliver a thoughtful and somewhat unexpected murder mystery. Oh sure, the characters keep right on doing cliché things. And of course when time matters most everything bad that can happen does, all in good cheese-movie tradition. But the puzzle itself keeps things interesting, even when you’re busy wading through the politically motivated pamphlets cleverly disguising themselves as scenes in a movie. Spacey’s typically solid acting cancels out Winslet’s overwrought airhead character, except when she forgets herself and starts wailing like an under-medicated mental patient. The high point for me was when she decided that the best way to solve Gale’s mystery was to duct-tape a plastic bag around her head.
The Life of David Gale
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