Hollywood delivers thrill-seeking death penalty vehicle

By Willa Paskin

The Life of David Gale is a good movie that mistakenly believes it is a thriller. It is really a shame since it possesses some of the qualities of an excellent movie: a good story, complex themes, great actors, and a compelling sensibility. Yet what it lacks is something a great movie really can’t go without, and that’s bravery. This is a film about moral issues and while that may be a hard sell, it’s the only thing remotely unique about this well-crafted film. Instead of embracing the ethical dilemmas at its core, the film focuses on a totally entertaining but trivial storytelling device. In interviews about the film Kevin Spacey has said he made the movie not because of its particular content, the death penalty, but because it was a great thriller. Happily, authorial intention is not a headache we inflict upon ourselves much anymore, because thrillers are a dime a dozen, but movies that grapple with how our principles impact the way we live our lives are a fair deal rarer. Few movies even have the potential to grapple honestly and competently with the latter, which is perhaps what makes David Gale so disappointing. It has that potential, but given the chance to be something other than ordinary, it settled for being the same old thing.

There are really two stories in this movie. One follows Bitsy Bloom (Kate Winslet), a.k.a. “Mike Wallace with PMS,” and charmingly scruffy intern Zack (Gabriel Mann) as they head down to Texas to interview David Gale (Kevin Spacey), a man four days away from a lethal injection. Gale has been found guilty of raping and murdering his friend Constance (Laura Linney), but as Zack quickly points out to Bitsy in their ill-functioning rental car, something does not jive. David Gale was the head of the philosophy department at the University of Texas, Austin, author of two groundbreaking books, husband to a Grace Kelly look-alike, and to top it all off, a leader in the anti-death penalty movement. This does not strike Zack as the kind of man who would rape and kill a woman, let alone leave his fingerprints on the bag used to suffocate her. Bitsy and Zack head over to one of the 10 prisons in the area (and that’s 10 more prisons than there are Starbucks in this neck of the woods, our two New Yorkers kindly point out) to meet the illustrious David Gale. Over the course of three afternoons, David tells his story to Bitsy.

This recounting, told in flashbacks, constitutes the second story of the film. The first is a thrilling race against the clock and the second is an examination of a man and his deteriorating life. David Gale is not a perfect man, but he is a good man, an arrogant cuckold and drunk who is dedicated to his son, his profession, and his ideas. As played by Kevin Spacey, he is a sympathetic wise-ass; the kind of excellent yet lost soul Spacey has portrayed before. Actually, the difference between this character and the one he portrayed in American Beauty seems to be only a matter of circumstance or degrees of repression. Then again, David Gale and Lester Burnham might be entirely different characters and it is only Spacey that is the same.

As we come to know pre-death row David we are also learning about his good friend and supposed victim, Constance, who is played spectacularly by Laura Linney. David and Constance have a deep, loving, and complex relationship. Constance sticks by David as she pursues her intense, passionate dedication to the anti-death penalty cause. Laura Linney does an exceptional job of making Constance’s passion and choices wholly believable. The credible dialogue helps here by creating believable human relationships and interactions for both David and Constance and Bitsy and Zack.

But back to the thrills: as David is telling his story, evidence is turning up in Bitsy’s motel room. Shady characters and inconsistencies are abounding. David Gale is egging Bitsy on, imploring her to remember him properly to his son, to get the truth. Clues are amassing, random and unrelated commonplaces breed epiphanies, throwaway comments set off light bulbs. All of this adding up to the pay-off sequence of Bitsy sprinting towards the jail because the rental car has finally broken down with only eight minutes until the execution and the truth in her hands. Will Bitsy make it in time?

But it turns out it doesn’t matter. The point is not whether Bitsy can save David Gale’s life. It turns out that’s irrelevant to the film’s heroes (though whether Bitsy can save David Gale in other ways is not) and, in the end, to the audience. This movie fails as a thriller because the thrill, the point, is not Bitsy’s detective work or a last minute reprieve, but what it means to live and sacrifice for the ideas that you believe in. This is a movie about the actions of a dying woman and a disgraced man who believe in something. This movie’s strength is that it credibly portrays people making those kinds of choices.

This is not to say that the “death penalty” portion of the film is unflawed. It resorts to a great deal of stereotyping: everyone who is sympathetic in this movie is anti-death penalty and everyone unsympathetic is pro. Southern governors don’t come out looking too good either and in portraying one side so exclusively the movie can be a bit heavy-handed. That being said, a movie should not have to be everything to everyone all of the time. An even-handed approach in a two-hour film can be a really limiting requirement. These weaknesses are real, but are offset by what the movie does accomplish, which is (when not masquerading as a thriller) to deal with serious issues seriously.

If, for a moment, we agreed that the point of this film was to be a “good thrill” it still would have failed to deliver. The movie does not work very well as a thriller because everything in it–the rental car, the shoddy lawyer, the cowboy in the pick-up truck–is just as important as it seems to be, so none of it is surprising. Bitsy’s moment of revelation caused laughter in the audience because, well, it was pretty obvious and, more importantly, because the joke was on her. She does not understand that it doesn’t matter if she can save David Gale because David Gale does not want that kind of saving. There are some additional twist and turns, which one might claim are the true “thrills” of this film, but I would argue that they function less as a surprise than as an appropriate completion of our hero and heroine’s ideology.

I am left to wonder what this movie might have been like without Bitsy and her framing device, i.e. without pretensions to being a thriller. It is a real credit to Laura Linney and Kevin Spacey, and their powerful portrayals of complex people, that I wish all this extra stuff would just go away, that I wonder what The Life of David Gale could have been with only David and Constance and their choices, fully embracing that it is not a film about action movie heroics, but about complex people trying to reconcile their lives and their philosophies.