CRITICS, GET A LIFE: THE
LIFE OF DAVID GALE ISN'T THAT BAD
By Michael Asimow
I've been browsing the reviews
of The Life of David Gale on the Internet Movie Data Base.
Most are scathingly negative. It's as if the critics felt personally
offended by the picture. I thought the picture wasn't that
bad and I've been trying to understand why so many eminent critics
Gale is an up front
anti-death penalty picture. It's nowhere near as good as Dead
Man Walking, Breaker Morant, or The Green Mile
but it's better than other pictures in that subgenre such as
Last Dance or The Chamber. It has a clever double
twist ending which is entirely appropriate to the political message
of the movie and the personality of the characters. I won't
betray the ending here since many readers haven't yet seen the
film. My wife and I didn't guess the ending (although a lot
of critics claim it was obvious to them right from the beginning).
The ending to David Gale certainly was an improvement
on the typical one in death penalty movies. Most of these films
end with a gory execution scene; we are treated to watching the
condemned (whom we've come to sympathize with whether they're
innocent or guilty) get the lethal injection, gas, rope, bullet,
Certainly, the thriller aspects
of the picture are weak. The unsuccessful last minute heroics
to save the prisoner were absurd and wholly superfluous. The
brilliant parody of such antics in The Player fits David
Gale to a T. The character of journalist Bitsey Bloom (Kate
Winslet) was poorly written and weakly conceived and Winslet's
acting was not convincing. Other thriller aspects of the film
(such as finding the audiotape or Bitsey's research into what
really happened at the murder scene) are also silly or overdone.
But you know what? In addition
to the clever ending, the film has some strong aspects. Some
of the acting was terrific. I thought Kevin Spacey as the condemned
David Gale was excellent (but then I always like Spacey's work).
I liked the way the character was written and developed--the
long terrible slide from respected philosophy professor, family
man, and anti-death penalty activist into unemployed bum, shoved
along by a devastatingly faked rape charge. Even better and
more interesting was the always capable Laura Linney as the victim
and fellow death penalty activist Constance Harraway.
Most important was the anti-death
penalty message. We're in Texas, home of the assembly line death
penalty. The enthusiastically pro-capital punishment governor
is shown up as a boob and a political whore. Many of the problems
of Southern death penalty justice are on display here, including
inept defense lawyers, endless delays while prisoners sit on
death row, hopeless last minute appeals that stretch the judicial
system out of shape, overwhelmed death penalty opponents, and
innocent men who are condemned to death because of judicial error.
We visit death row and watch the clanking bureaucratic processes
by which the death penalty is actually administered.
Recent public opinion polling
indicates that public support for the death penalty is starting
to slip as people understand the many practical flaws and the
staggering expense of the death machine. The ABA has called
for a moratorium. George Ryan's heroic action in granting a
moratorium and then clemency to everybody on Illinois' death
row because of the hopeless defects in the system has impressed
many people. Death penalty films like David Gale bring that
message home to millions of people who are compelled to reconsider
their position on this momentous issue after seeing the film.
By combining the political message with a thriller plot structure,
a lot more people will see the film. That's good, right?
So what's with the critics?
Surely David Gale wasn't all that bad, despite its acknowledged
failures as a thriller (how many thrillers are really all that
thrilling anyhow? Damned few) Did the critics resent having
the anti-death penalty message shoved into their faces once again?
Are they a little bored with it, perhaps? Or does it make
them a bit uncomfortable? Do they feel that, in these times
of terror and insecurity, we shouldn't undermine public confidence
in law enforcement or in the good judgment of our executive officials?
Well, maybe I'm being unfair here and the critics just thought
it was another lousy, stupid movie (like so many they're compelled
to endure). Yet, in my view, the picture was good but not great,
and it packed a powerful political punch. You have to wonder
what is going on with the critics.
Posted March 21, 2003