The Moviehunter

Pulp Culture
'David Gale' is
so bad it makes
you want to kill

March 6, 2003
By Franklin Harris

I walked into "The Life of David Gale" opposed to capital punishment. I left still opposed to it but willing to make some exceptions.

There are many kinds of bad movies, ranging from the so-bad-it's-good kind to the avoid-at-all-costs kind. "The Life of David Gale" belongs to a subset I call the pedigreed disaster. Its three stars are all either Oscar winners or Oscar nominees.

Kevin Spacey is a dead man sucking.
Photo © Copyright Universal
Kevin Spacey is a dead man sucking.
"David Gale" is to thrillers what "Ishtar" is to road pictures.

It isn't simply a bad movie. Most liberal message movies are too self-satisfied to be entertaining, but "David Gale" plumbs new depths of loathsomeness. Almost every character is self-serving, cynical, shrill, manipulative and just plain unlikable. And these are the good guys. You want to shoot the messengers, except shooting is too good for them.

So is lethal injection.

David Gale (Kevin Spacey) is a former University of Texas philosophy professor on death row for the rape and murder of a colleague, Constance Hallaway (Laura Linney). Ironically, Gale and his victim were both high-profile anti-death-penalty activists before the murder.

With four days until his execution, Gale grants an interview to magazine reporter Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet). He wants to tell his story not to prove his innocence — although he plays the part of a framed man quite well — but to make sure his son knows what kind of person his father really was.

Or so he says, anyway. But it's obvious that Gale has some plan in motion. That is why he picked Bloom to interview him. She has a reputation for protecting her sources, going so far as to do jail time to avoid naming the names involved in a child pornography ring.

As Gale tells his story, Bloom begins to wonder if he really is being framed, perhaps by a conspiracy of pro-death-penalty good old boys. If there is such a conspiracy, it might explain the guy in the cowboy hat who so obviously follows Bitsey across Texas.

Half of the film is Gale telling the story that led up to Constance's death. Predictably, it's all about him, not Constance.

We're told repeatedly that Gale is brilliant. That's good, because otherwise we might think he is really stupid, as when one of his former students entices him to have some rather energetic sex. We can see her phony cry of rape coming a mile away, but Mr. Rhodes Scholar can't.

Although the student skips town without pursuing the rape charge, Gale's life is over. His wife leaves him, taking their son with her to Spain, and he loses his job and becomes an alcoholic.

The film's other half is a standard police procedural minus the police, with Bitsey following the clues conveniently left for her at every turn.

Unfortunately, I can't really explain the movie's failure without giving away the "surprise" ending. I halfway guessed it early on, and my guess was confirmed midway through by the sudden introduction of a key piece of information, implausibly hidden until that point. But by then I was in as cynical a frame of mind as the film's screenwriter, Charles Randolph, must have been when he penned this drivel. I was expecting the worst.

But I would be lying if I said I didn't find this mess fascinating, much in the same way a natural disaster or a train wreck is fascinating.

"David Gale" is more than a train wreck. It's one of those Indian train wrecks in which most of the passengers are riding atop the cars and hundreds or thousands die.

Does that make it "so bad it's good"? That depends on your tolerance for holier-than-thou hypocrisy.

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