The camera shows dirt. Clumpy, dark. Far off in the distance, a little red car huffs and puffs its way along a road. Smoke appears from the engine, the car dies. “Shit!” yells the occupant, muffled by the distance. She grabs something from within the vehicle then starts running. Hard.
This scene begins The Life of David Gale, and it will be repeated near the end. The runner is a journalist named, unfortunately, Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet). She’s principled, you soon learn, as she’s gone to prison for a week to protect one of her sources, a kiddie porn maker. She’s very principled. And, though you don’t know it when you first see Bitsey run, she’s also a long distance runner.
Okay. She isn’t really a long distance runner. But she certainly rises to the occasion when, at the end of Alan Parker’s ardently anti-death penalty movie, she must run for what looks like miles to save a man’s life. She makes a valiant, Benjamin-Braddock-worthy dash to deliver a crucial videotape (the object retrieved from her little red dead car) to the warden (even racing through a cemetery: the visual is stunning!). Indeed, it is a videotape that proves beyond all shadows of doubt that death row inmate David Gale (Kevin Spacey) is innocent. Only Clint Eastwood could have cooked up a more dramatic climax to an innocent-man-on-death-row plot, which he did, in True Crime.
For all the energy she shows at film’s end, however, Bitsey’s route to this last minute revelation is awfully slow. It’s a bad sign when the supposedly ace investigative reporter is several steps behind the audience in figuring out the plot. That’s not all her fault, though. For this “life” (scripted by Charles Randolph) is preposterous like a movie plot: characters reveal secrets at convenient moments, events are contrived, and the drama is huge. Bitsey’s detective work is also acutely constrained by the narcissism and slow storytelling of her subject, David Gale.
Right off, even before she goes to visit him in prison, she knows that David was once a philosophy professor at the University of Austin and anti-death penalty activist. This last part is important, for it allows the movie no end of opportunities to articulate its arguments (the death penalty is legally and socially unsound, ineffective, immoral, “cruel and unusual,” spiritually specious, etc.). Most often, it does so by standing the noble Gale against obviously deranged or otherwise oily others — the governor of Texas, ominously named Hardin (Michael Crabtree; Parker is upfront about his first inclination to find a Bush look-alike), and rednecky locals who spout clichés in grainy tv close-ups (“An eye for an eye!” “The needle’s too good for him!”).
The fact that David is a professor (Zack calls him an “academic stud”) also grants him ample vocabulary and ego to make the case, as well as time and inclination to contemplate politics in the abstract. At the same time, this privilege makes him a spokesperson for those who actually end up on death row, who conspicuously don’t have such luxuries of time, money, education, or, most obviously, whiteness.
You meet David, ashen-faced and smugly earnest as Spacey can be, on death row in Texas for the rape and murder of his university colleague and fellow activist, the significantly named Constance (Laura Linney). With just four days to live, he invites the highly principled Bitsey to interview him so that he might tell his side. And when she arrives, she’s taunted, Clarice Starling-like, by other inmates, most black, of course (it’s death row in Texas), all looming behind the bars that separate them from her. Yet another reminder of how righteous David is, by comparison. He doesn’t loom.
Instead, he sits behind a protective barrier and talks at Bitsey, in two-hour increments for three days running, the film only cuts back to the prison at the end of each session, so that during each bit of story, you, along with Bitsey, are immersed in the tale. It’s one way of ensuring that you start wondering if there’s another perspective. In other words, it’s one way to make you believe him as fast as Bitsey does: she immediately takes up his injunctions at the end of each day. “I don’t have much time,” he sighs, “You know I’m innocent.” She’s taking notes as he speaks, and at the end of each session, the screen is overcome with whirling dervish camerawork and a rush of words made to look like typed or handwritten notes: “desire,” “murder,” “punishment.”
Bitsey’s conversion is sketchy, character-wise. To bolster her quick shift, the film provides her with a helper, the incredibly supportive, smart, and non-neurotic magazine intern, Zack (Gabriel Mann), so charming that she accepts his judgment that her reputation as “Mike Wallace with PMS” does seem to fit. Bound by their mutual desire to help David, they take his tragic story to heart. The drama begins, he says, when he’s teaching at the university (lecturing on Lacan in the flashback: “Fantasies have to be unrealistic”). That night, he gets drunk at a faculty-student party. He apparently has reason (only one instance of the film’s needless deck stacking). For one thing, he’s grieving over his wife’s open secret of an affair. For another, the party DJ plays Leonard Cohen’s “The Future,” enough to make anyone self-destructive in a minute.
Once David is wholly toasted, he’s seduced by the luscious Berlin (Rhona Mitra). A student (or more accurately, a vengeful ex-student, just that night expelled for failing grades), Berlin gets him to rip her panties and have sex with no condom. She accuses him of rape, then leaves town without actually convicting him in court. She needn’t, for the damage she intended is done: he loses his job, wife, and son, and he starts drinking. (Beautiful college girls! So vicious!) The most egregious woe-is-him touch is that David’s adulterous icy blond wife demands her divorce over email: who are these people?
Bitsey feels inexplicably driven to find out. So, she digs deeper into the mystery of Gale’s conviction, learning that his pony-tailed cracker lawyer (Leon Rippy) lives up (or down) to his stereotype: he made mistake after mistake in the initial case and in appeals. Still, David, so bright and so superior, is loyal to him (“He’s a good man”). Other questions abound: who’s that creepy guy in a pickup truck who wears a cowboy hat, skulks in shadows, listens to Turandot, and follows Bitsey and Zack around? How come they’re in a place where there’s more prisons than Starbucks, a barbeque joint every ten miles, and not one signal for a cell phone? And why does the little red car go dead at precisely the most critical point? Have they indeed, arrived in the Twilight Zone?
It sure seems that way. Bitsey and Zack go to the “murder house,” now, nine years later, a “museum” tended by the only goth girl within 200 miles. After viewing a tape of what looks like Constance’s suicide, Bitsey is understandably distraught. What she does next is not nearly understandable, and even convinces sensible Zack to help her reenact the suicide. “Three minutes!” she insists, as she handcuffs herself and tapes a plastic bag over her head. “Keep your eyes on your watch!” It’s the film’s most appalling and ludicrous moment, and recalls that Parker was responsible for Angel Heart.
All of this is not to detract from the director’s good intentions, plentiful and in painfully plain sight. The film’s website includes a how-the-movie-came-to-be essay, as well as a “political argument” against the death penalty, both written by the director. Such intentions, however, hardly mitigate The Life of David Gale‘s unearned piety and strange race politics. And this last brings to mind that Parker made Mississippi Burning, and defended his choice to focus on heroic white FBI agents, by saying that audiences needed white characters to root for. That was 1988. Today, The Life of David Gale leaves out any substantive reference to the vast majority of death row cases, that is, black and Hispanic men without money or choices concerning representation — in lawyers or in films.