The Life of David Gale

(Alan Parker, USA, 2003)


During The Life of David Gale, you may find yourself, in your mind, ticking off the scenes of histrionic agony.

Gale (Kevin Spacey), the falsely accused man, drunk and wailing with remorse. Bitsey (Kate Winslet), the intrepid, investigative reporter, breaking down and howling at the world's injustice. Constance (Laura Linney), David's comrade in the fight to abolish capital punishment, reviewing her sad life as she bravely faces leukaemia.

Forgive my sarcasm in the face of a film that takes on life and death issues, but The Life of David Gale is a wretched, overwrought, pointless piece of manipulation. As he has so often done in his career, director Alan Parker (The Commitments, 1991) short-circuits promising material with his characteristic manner of hysteria and bombast.

The script by Charles Randolph piles on the subplots and is compelled to over-explain every last one of them. Gale – ironically enough for a man set against the death penalty – is himself on Death Row. He is accused of gruesomely murdering Constance. Feisty Bitsey, handpicked to hear the story of his life, slowly warms to the muckraking task at hand.

Events unfold in a messy flood of flashbacks. Much time is spent on Gale's brilliant university career – notable for being the only academic on earth who can reduce Jacques Lacan's psychoanalysis to a homily about loving one another – and his fling with the smouldering, student femme fatale, Berlin (Rhona Mitra).

What does that little dalliance, and the ensuing scandal it causes, have to do with the central story? Not very much, as it turns out. And there are many more side-attractions to come, just as annoying: Gale's descent into alcoholism and his rebirth as a humble, working stiff; Bitsey's possible romance with her luckless associate, Zack (Gabriel Mann); and the strange, ubiquitous presence of Dusty (Matt Craven) in his ominously large cowboy hat.

Is this a film with a social agenda? If so, it's possible to miss it. By the end, there have been so many convoluted twists, so many scenes of hand-wringing and chest-beating, so many tabloid excursions into hot topics of race, gender and class, so many flashy edits and surges of rock music, that the drama cancels itself out.

And is there a worse actor in contemporary cinema than Kevin Spacey? Not for one moment does he let us forget his presence and his mannered technique. Every gesture, every line reading screams: look at me, I am sensitive and deep, seductive and forceful, I am a man of mystery, I am pushing the envelope of emotion.

Beside him, Winslet doesn't stand a chance at making a decent impression. Her role – the kind she seems to now favour – is an enormous handicap: a sort of feminist girl scout who is only truly happy when she is purposefully marching down corridors of power, yelling at her ugly, patriarchal bosses, or running frantically to save the day.

On that level, at least, The Life of David Gale does offer the tiny compensation of inadvertently camp humour.

© Adrian Martin May 2003

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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