I’m going to be swimming upstream with this one.
Most of my critical comrades-in-arms are four-square against Alan Parker’s latest offering, The Life of David Gale, and while I understand where they’re coming from, I have to admit I don’t share their antipathy for the film. It may be that I am more in tune with Parker’s work than not (even though I’m less than whelmed by Bugsy Malone, The Wall and Mississippi Burning) and am looking at the film as a piece of his filmography as much as a separate work. It would probably be wise for non-Parkerphiles to bear this in mind when reading my comments about David Gale.
First, let’s look at the debit side of the movie — and, yes, there’s a pretty big one. The story of anti-capital-punishment activist David Gale (Kevin Spacey, somewhat out of his cloying K-Pax mode) being convicted for the murder of fellow activist Constance Hallway (Laura Linney) and telling his story from death row to the improbably named journalist Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet) is nothing if not contrived. The concept alone is so steeped in clever irony that it’s apt to make you cringe. And it doesn’t stop there: First-time screenwriter Charles Randolph piles coincidence on top of coincidence and strains the viewer’s credulity well beyond the breaking point in a manner that can only be called Clever Scripting. Randolph is just too in love with how surprising his story is.
The problem — or one of them — is that he spends so much time trying to surprise us that he loses sight of anything resembling plausibility. Without giving anything away, I can ask you to ponder just how the parties responsible would know — let alone count on — Bitsey’s car breaking down at just the right moment to suit the needs of the plot? Either Randolph, or Parker, was seemingly aware of the script’s reliance on the improbable. Why else include an observation about a dubious coincidence — “That’s why they’re called coincidences” — in the script itself? Worse, the fact that the script is so transparently hell-bent on surprising is the primary reason it rarely does. And all of this does work against David Gale, but if we’re going to rule things out on the basis of unlikely contrivances, we might as well toss most of Shakespeare’s plays while we’re at it.
Charles Randolph is no Shakespeare, I grant you, but he does etch in some pretty good characters who are given dialogue that actually enhances their complexity. For example, Leon Rippy’s Braxton Belyeu is first presented as a singularly inept good-ol’-boy court-appointed lawyer who botched Gale’s case and is anything but bright. But later he assesses a bad situation by saying, “Don’t let’s throw a pity party and start reading Kafka just yet,” indicating a level of shrewdness and frame of reference that begins to suggest the man isn’t quite what we’d been led to assume.
Christian Science Monitor critic David Sterritt calls the film “an Alan Parker potboiler,” and in some ways he isn’t wrong. Parker himself admits to having latched onto the screenplay rather quickly at a time when a writers’ strike threatened to keep him from working. So there is a level of expediency — if not outright desperation — to the film. But Sterritt’s subsequent complaint that the film raises more questions than it answers is not only something I don’t see as a negative, but is an aspect so central to much of Parker’s work that I take it as a given. I also find it to be one of the director’s greatest strengths. Parker has no desire to spell it all out for you and then wrap it in a hermetically sealed package. He wants the viewer to be left with something to think about — and in this regard, David Gale is no different from any other Parker film.
The problem here is that we are not left with a particularly pleasant set of issues to consider — something that makes the film morally suspect in the eyes of some of its detractors (notably Roger Ebert). I would agree with this if I thought that the film itself necessarily endorses the negative events that transpire, but I don’t believe it does any more than I believe Parker’s Angel Heart endorses Satanism. And so far as I know, no one has ever suggested that. The difference here, of course, is that David Gale is easily pigeonholed as a “problem picture.” This, I think, is part of the reason the movie’s gotten some bad press — the easy perception that it’s a film about capital punishment. It certainly is a film with a story about the death penalty; but for better or worse, it’s at its core a thriller. And that’s how it needs to be judged — and not as polemic.
I’m quite sure that Parker is perfectly capable of making a film that addresses capital punishment as its central issue — but this is not that, nor was it designed to be. And as a thriller — despite its contrivances, coincidences and outrageous implausibilities — it’s really a pretty darn good movie. Parker’s signature atmosphere and uncanny precision in editing are very much in evidence, as is his ability to get the best out of his performers. Fans of the director will find much to admire here. David Gale may only score a three out of a possible five on its own, but it warrants a four out of five as a part of Parker’s whole body of work. In either case, it’s anything but a waste of your time.