Combustible Celluloid
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With: Kevin Spacey, Kate Winslet, Laura Linney, Gabriel Mann, Matt Craven, Rhona Mitra, Leon Rippy, Elizabeth Gast, Cleo King, Constance Jones, Lee Ritchey, Jim Beaver, Michael Crabtree
Written by: Charles Randolph
Directed by: Alan Parker
MPAA Rating: R for violent images, nudity, language and sexuality
Running Time: 130
Date: 02/07/2003

The Life of David Gale (2003)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Death and taxing

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The best movies allow viewers to read their thoughts and feelings into the material, to suddenly recognize some part of themselves in there and to feel as if the film were speaking directly to them. The best films invite viewers to join them. Message movies, on the other hand, are the equivalent of evangelists knocking at your door, barging in, interrupting dinner, and telling you that you'll suffer in flames unless you change your life. First-time screenwriter Charles Randolph has figured out a way to combine his message movie with a more generic race-against-time thriller. And while the combination provides a kind of novelty that works for a while, it ultimately falls apart and lays bare its true essence: that of a mediocre message movie combined with a mediocre race-against-time thriller.

As the story begins, magazine reporter Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet) lands an exclusive interview with a man on death row -- ironically, a former anti-death penalty activist accused of raping and murdering his partner. Kevin Spacey stars as the condemned title character, who narrates his life story to Bloom. A Texas philosophy professor in his former life, Gale's downfall begins when a sexy student (Rhona Mitra) gets him drunk and seduces him at a party. Later, she charges him with rape, using bite marks and skin under her fingernails as evidence. Gale loses his wife, his son and his university job, but he still works on an anti-death penalty campaign with his best friend, Constance Hallaway (Laura Linney). Hallaway does most of the grunt work campaigning against Texas' many executions, while Gale gets to go on television and debate with the governor.

We've heard the arguments before, and if you're passionate about this topic, it's hard not to get ramped up. But it's a one-sided movie; the conservative characters fall back on the same tired "eye for an eye" stuff, and they don't often get screen time to really rebut the liberal viewpoints. Not to mention that Tim Robbins' 1995 Dead Man Walking made its arguments with far more truth and subtlety by focusing on characters, not on preaching. In any case, Constance winds up dead, raped and strangled by a plastic bag, and Gale takes the fall for it. Bloom, and her intern assistant Zack (Gabriel Mann), must solve the crime before Gale gets the chair.

The thriller portion of the film smells stale. The film opens with Bloom's car breaking down, and she runs down the highway clutching a videotape, suggesting a race against time and a pressing development. But this isn't really the beginning of the story, it's a flash-forward to a more exciting event that comes later -- probably because the filmmakers are afraid the actual beginning is too dull. Writer Randolph relies on the cheesiest of thriller twists: A mysterious man in a truck follows Bloom and Zack, and when they chase him he disappears; Bloom's cellphone konks out when needed most; the rental car is a lemon. And Zack, though played by the appealing Mann, is only there to give Bloom someone to talk to when she reads her expository dialogue.

But The Life of David Gale isn't a total waste: Linney gives an extraordinary performance as a woman who has given her life for her cause, and Spacey manages a step back toward the limelight after a string of duds like The Big Kahuna, Pay It Forward, K-PAX and The Shipping News. As for Winslet, well, she looks great in a pair of jeans, but she's a talented actress with very little to do here. (Not to mention she has the most organized desk of any journalist, ever.) After more than a dozen films, director Alan Parker still has not developed a signature style; it's even difficult to tell that two self-important films like Angela's Ashes and The Life of David Gale were made by the same person. Truth to tell, Parker's best success has been with musicals: Fame, Pink Floyd the Wall, The Commitments and Evita. Why, when the musical supposedly has been reborn, he would stray so far from his greatest strength is a mystery far more potent than anything in The Life of David Gale.

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