BY LYNN LEE
There are many arguments for and against deliberately putting humans to death. When it comes to human works, however, there is really no arguing mercy for heinous crimes. A movie that commits as many moral, intellectual and aesthetic atrocities as The Life of David Gale should have been dispatched long ago, if not aborted at conception. Instead, it is now at large among the public, with no protections offered other than the ineffectual warnings of critics like me.
As a critic, I don’t normally employ such loaded terms. But a film like David Gale has no justification for its existence. It tries to double as a crime thriller with a salient political message about capital punishment, but it doesn’t work on either level. As a death penalty film, it ultimately makes both sides of the debate look equally ugly — not, I suspect, for the purpose of striking a moral balance, but for adding punch to a mystery that is doomed from the start by its utter transparency and intermittent ludicrousness. Perhaps a nihilist would enjoy it, but I don’t know who else would.
Kevin Spacey plays the title character, an anti-death penalty activist and former professor of philosophy who, in a none-too-subtle ironic twist, is on death row in a Texas state prison for the rape and brutal murder of a colleague and fellow activist (Laura Linney). Three days before his execution, he grants a series of exclusive interviews with Bitsy Bloom (Kate Winslet), a crack reporter from a New York-based national news magazine. Bitsy hustles south, with an unwanted intern in tow to whom she barely gives the time of day except to put him in his place at every possible unprovoked opportunity. (Too bad — he’s kind of cute.) Bitsy is, to put it charitably, a rather abrasive character — wouldn’t you be if your name were Bitsy? But in due course, her interviews with Gale thaw her out and convince her that there’s something wrong about his conviction, as he tells her — in MTV-style-edited flashback sequences — the full story of his relationship with the victim and the events leading up to her death. Could Gale have been framed? Might it be that nothing is what it seems — not even the shady character in the cowboy hat who trails Bitsy and her long-suffering intern wherever they go, and who seems to have a taste for Puccini rather than country music? (That little eccentricity, by the way, is the closest that director Alan Parker, a Brit who’s made better films, comes to complicating his picture of Texas — which, true to caricature, runs high to churches and prisons rather than Starbucks joints, and boasts a governor who’s “in touch with his inner frat boy.” Touché, anyone?)
Bitsy and her intern gamely play detective, taking an excruciatingly long time to unravel the plot which the movie’s trailer practically gives away. Not that there aren’t some cheap thrills along the way, if you have a high tolerance for viewer discomfort: You get treated, among other things, to seeing Spacey’s character getting sloshed for about 80 percent of the movie and having what looks like very painful sex not once, but twice, for unnecessarily extended periods. One of the times is at a raucous departmental party which resembles no departmental social function I ever attended as a grad student; certainly no grad student I ever knew looked like the one who seduces Gale in the bathroom. And I don’t remember lecture-style grad school classes of one hundred or more. But then I’ve never been to UT-Austin, so for all I know, it may have a hoppin’ philosophy department filled with women who look like they stepped out of a Victoria’s Secret catalog.
Far more disturbing in the cheap-thrills department is a video that turns up of what seems to be the victim’s last moments before she died of suffocation — naked and bruised, with a plastic bag duct-taped over her head. Any filmmaker of any integrity had better have a damned good reason for showing that kind of imagery even for a split second. This film doesn’t, and shows it several times; the worst sequence in the entire movie is one involving Winslet’s character fixated on the video, watching it over and over again, trying to piece together what really happened. I’m sorry, folks, but “nothing is what it seems” just ain’t an excuse for what other critics have aptly labeled a snuff video.
Nor does the acting redeem any part of the film’s sordidness. Spacey never succeeds in fully summoning the sympathy we’re supposed to feel for his character’s downward spiral. Part of the problem is Parker’s direction, which is so slick you can practically feel the oil rub off the screen. Part of it is the staginess of the egotism that’s supposed to be Gale’s fatal flaw. The supporting players, including Winslet, are about as cardboard as characters get. The one luminous exception is the wonderful Laura Linney; her character, appropriately named Constance, and her interactions with Gale are the only moments in which the movie approaches something like genuine humanity. That’s why the ending is such a betrayal of her, and of everything she represents. In the end, she can’t be the saving grace of David Gale — because the plot won’t let her. That, by any moviegoer’s standards, should be a capital crime.