Andre Bazin, one of the pioneers of modern film criticism, once warned against judging films based on the merit of their intentions, the nobility of their ambition, or the stupidity of their detractors. The Life of David Gale, a classic Hollywood thriller about a university professor accused of rape and murder, comes close to offering a perfect example for Bazin’s caution. The film is a model case of what can go wrong with an intriguing idea. Alan Parker, the director of Mississippi Burning, wants to shove a square peg of unconventional plotline into a round hole of conventional suspense, and hammer down some liberal pathos for effect. Instead, hamstrung by miscast actors, a trite screenplay, and an inability to tie all the strings together at the end, The Life of David Gale is a litany of missed chances.
David Gale, a smirking professor of philosophy at a university in Texas, is also a staunch anti-death penalty advocate. Strutting around in the class with his denim jacket and speckled brown tie, David is the epitome of the liberal, an insouciant mix of the intellectual and the casual. His intellectual prowess brings him a fair share of female admirers and one of them, Berlin (Rhona Mitra), who is also his student, accuses him of rape.
The rape accusation is the beginning of David’s downfall, and unlike his biblical namesake, he is unable to defeat the Goliath of academic conservatism. Without a job or a family, he turns into a raging alcoholic, though he remains true to his classical roots by discussing Socrates during his drunken revelries on Austin streets. As if his joblessness and alcoholism were not enough, matters take a turn for the worse when he is incarcerated and convicted for the gruesome rape and murder of fellow anti-death penalty advocate, Constance Harraway (Laura Linney).
Spacey as Gale, the academic jock and bleeding heart liberal, is flamboyantly portrayed but one can see Spacey the actor lurking behind his own persona, smirking at his cleverness. For a film traversing the travails of a death row prisoner, Spacey’s performance is much too controlled to be effective. Laura Linney is a much better fit in her role as David’s colleague, Constance, but the film gives her too much weak dialogue and too many throwaway lines. Asked what she regrets in her life, she replies “Too little sex.” The confession seems an inane comment in the context in which it was stated, thus weakening a key plot element in the film.
The penitentiary does not make David penitent. He pleads innocence to a journalist, Bitsey Bloom (a slimmed down Kate Winslet), assigned to interview him. Bitsey is from News magazine, and both her name and the title of the paper she is working for are symptomatic of the lack of imagination in the film. With three days left before David’s execution, Bitsey realizes the man may not be guilty after all. By the time the mystery has been sorted out, some bad acting defeats a novel plot. Bitsey is just not convincing as a fact-hungry reporter. Her histrionics towards the end only succeed in exaggerating her incongruity in this movie. Winslet is an actor with skills far beyond what conventional Hollywood roles demand (case in point, her role in Quills). Cast in the mold of reporter cum sleuth, Kate Winslet is talented enough to look uncomfortable but not talented enough to survive the cliches. She courageously bites her thumbnails at pivotal moments and furrows her brow in mock indignation and puzzlement at the events unfolding around her. But despite her constant tete-a-tetes with her Man Friday, Zack (Gabriel Mann), on the finer points of the murder, Kate struggles to come across as more than just a pretty face.
Towards the end of the film, there are several moments when Zack expresses frustration with the case. He pounds his car, pumps his fists and even shouts at Bitsey. Many viewers are likely to feel the same way.
– Nigam Nuggehalli