“If I did a political diatribe, nobody would listen to me,” director Alan Parker recently said during an interview with Charlie Rose. “It is important to find a wide audience.” Unfortunately, in his search for a wide audience in megaplexes across the nation, Parker ended up with a strange mess of a movie. Marketed as a “thriller” and a “fantastic human drama,” The Life of David Gale is neither. Instead, it’s an often offensive political satire on the death penalty in Texas, a subject that deserves a far better and much more intelligent dramatic treatment.
In the film, David Gale (Kevin Spacey), a former philosophy professor at the fictional University of Austin, is awaiting his execution on death row after being convicted of the murder of Constance Harraway (Laura Linney), a university colleague and fellow death penalty abolitionist. When Gale’s appeal is rejected, his lawyer (“a good old boy from Austin”) offers the story to News magazine reporter Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet). After the magazine puts up half a million dollars, Bloom is allowed to interview Gale on each of the three days prior to his execution. (In an ironic reference to the mega-hit Titanic, Winslet’s best-known American role, her first lines in this movie are “Gale’s going down.”)
Bloom and her intern (Gabriel Mann) shuffle off into the wild, hillbilly world of the Texas hinterland, depicted here as the end of the earth. Driving through Huntsville, Bloom observes that “you know you’re in the Bible Belt when there are more churches than Starbucks.” Uncivilized indeed. It’s not just the dearth of espresso joints deep in the heart of Texas; there are restaurants with plastic menus, BBQ shacks every few blocks, a whole lot of prisons, and to top it off, the cell phones won’t work and the only motels for miles feature blinking neon signs and nasty towels. Welcome to the Lone Star State, New Yorkers! Bloom’s rental car breaks down at a dark rest area, at which point an eerie cowboy (complete with hat) appears in his ratty old truck, and idles next to the out of towners. He doesn’t even say “howdy” or “where y’all from,” he just revs his engine and plays loud opera music from the truck’s stereo (Puccini). Throughout the film Bloom refers to this silent, ominous figure played by Matt Craven as, not surprisingly, “Cowboy.” (“Where are you, Cowboy?” “Is it Cowboy?”) Bloom’s a bit put-off by Cowboy, but is more concerned with the “check engine” light that keeps coming on in the rental car. Known as “Mike Wallace with PMS,” she is humorless and condescending, which we’re supposed to understand as indicative of her commitment to journalistic “objectivity.” Winslet plays Bloom as an overwrought cliché–”there is no truth, only perspectives.” Since Bloom is so tough and unbreakable (read: heartless), there’s nowhere for her character to go. We know that only something truly shocking and dramatic will finally move her.
Not surprisingly, it is Gale’s “difficult” story that breaks through the tough-girl façade. Separated by a pane of glass, Gale tells his story. As he begins, we hear some heavy-duty drum music (performed by the son of director Alan Parker). The screen begins to spin; hold on y’all, we’re going back in time. Words appear like graffiti and occasionally flash across Spacey’s face: power, condemnation, guilty, innocent, murder. Apparently these are some of the issues that Parker wants us to think about, but the overall effect is that of an episode of Wayne’s World.
Gale says that he desperately wants “to be remembered as much for how I led my life and the decisions I made as for how my life ended.” An interesting concept, for Gale himself is a complicated fellow. A sort of anti-hero, he is a highly intelligent man (top of his class at Harvard, tenured at the age of 27) who lectures his students about how to live with integrity, but can’t get his own act together. During the first flashback, we watch him tuck his son into bed and then skulk off to a hipster party where he gets hopelessly drunk, engages in some poolside philosophical sparring with his buddies from the university, and finds himself in a dangerous liaison with a graduate student. When he’s finally booted out of the university on a false rape accusation, his wife takes off and Gale spirals into debilitating alcoholism. He stumbles down Sixth Street in a soiled Harvard sweatshirt and obsessively phones Italy, where she has absconded with their young son. He’s “weak,” as his friend and colleague Constance Harraway astutely points out when he shows up hungover for a televised debate with the governor on behalf of DeathWatch, the nonprofit death penalty abolitionist group that Harraway directs.
It is through his friendship with the steadfast and loyal Constance that Gale finally begins to understand the fine theories he espouses in the classroom. The relationship between these two characters is one of the few things in the film that works–at least partially. Wearing frumpy dresses, cardigans, and no make-up, Linney embodies a woman who has dedicated her life to a cause. She speaks convincingly about the danger of bloodlust that capital punishment inspires, and works tirelessly to put her able mind to work for others. Although Constance speaks some of her most interesting lines while walking down stairs or through a hallway (it’s not a political movie, remember), if you listen closely you’ll learn that there are 17,000 murders per year in the United States; the states with the lowest crime rates are the ones that have abandoned the death penalty. This is a woman who knows her stuff and constantly advises Gale that his “ego is getting in the way of the work.” She’s also battling leukemia, which causes Gale to finally become a caretaker, rather than just a taker. As he relays all this to Bloom, he speaks softly in the manner of a repentant, wistful man, falsely accused of murdering his friend.
Back in Hunstville, the clock is ticking and Gale is counting on Bloom to piece together the details of Constance’s murder, clear his good name, and preserve his memory. Luckily, Bloom does everything exactly as Gale expects. She moves from skeptic to savior and acts the perfect pawn in the game he is playing, a game revealed to the audience as she unravels it.
The who-done-it aspect is what makes a thriller a thriller. This one, unfortunately, isn’t thrilling; it’s horrifying. The audience is forced to watch Constance’s murder again and again until it becomes sickening. Meanwhile, Bloom moves slowly through rooms when she should be in a desperate hurry, and yelps as she yanks back a shower curtain in a shady hotel room. Winslet, a capable actress, tries to bring fresh emotional gravity to her scenes (she is in 90 percent of them), but her starting point as the tough, unbreakable woman now shaken leaves room for little more than melodrama. Predictably, by the end of the movie Winslet has worked herself into a hysterical fit. The thin script by Charles Randolph doesn’t help. It’s peppered with clever quotes from Lacan and Pascal, and even the dorky Texas lawyer knows his literature: “Now let’s not throw a pity party and sit around reading Kafka” –precisely what we want to do at that point in the movie. More importantly, the emotional range of the characters is limited; much of their dialogue sounds as if it had been excerpted from a Lifetime television movie.
Parker, who directed Angela’s Ashes and Mississippi Burning, makes a point about the difficulty of doing “good thoughtful work” within the sanitizing “Hollywood system.” In David Gale he slaps the audience with every Texas stereotype in the book. The work is neither good, nor thoughtful. This is Hollywood’s Texas, folks. Austinites who might enjoy seeing the UT campus or the Metro coffeeshop appear on the big screen will quickly be turned off by the phony accents, cowboy hats, and the “representative” sampling of Texans, who appear in a bizarre grainy video sequence. When asked for their opinion about the death penalty, they spit verses from Deuteronomy over their Budweisers in honkytonky bars. Even the home of “Cowboy” turns out to be a shack, complete with the requisite rusted out cars and small appliances littering the yard and the distant howls of mangy country dogs. (The one moment when the deliberate stereotyping is slightly entertaining occurs during a televised debate between Gale and the governor. The fictional governor comes up with a few Dubya-esque soundbites like “I hate killin’ and I’d kill to stop it” and he wears the same dopey, shelacked grin.)
Parker seems to have chosen Texas, not for its fascinating and troubling history with the death penalty, but because it offers an easy way out of having to present an issue in all its complexity. David Gale and Constance Harraway look like intellectuals among the barbaric redneck hordes. The civilized professors eat at posh restaurants with French art on the walls while the rest of Texas eats at BBQ joints where food is served on plastic plates. That “wide audience” that Parker wants to find can relax. They’re not implicated in this story and they don’t have to think about the larger questions. Tragically, the movie misses an opportunity to breach the meaning and consequences of capital punishment in a state where four executions are scheduled to take place later this month; another three are scheduled for April.
During the same roundtable interview with Parker and Charlie Rose, Kevin Spacey suggested that “if this film has any message, it’s decidedly muddled and unclear.” But a muddled message is an awkward springboard for meaningful dialogue. And if it’s true that “politics makes for bad theater,” as Parker suggests, so, too, does avoiding the politics of an unavoidably political issue. The real twist of The Life of David Gale is that, for all its self-conscious refusals to make a political statement about the death penalty, the film ends up making a clear statement about death penalty abolitionists. The abolitionists in the film are crazed zealots who will abandon reason, relationships and even their own lives to achieve their political aims. Sounds political to me.
Observer intern Emily Rapp Seitz is a fellow at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin.