Review: The Life of David Gale (2003)


When seeing Kevin Spacey as David Gale, it’s hard not to recall memories of John Doe and Verbal Kint.  Spacey’s previous incarcerates gave the man two of his most iconic roles, but in Gale’s middle class American Professor, thoughts also turn towards his leading man turn as Lester Burnham giving Gale the added fascia of a relatable, decent man.

When doubtful of Gale, he feels like a schizophrenic mix of all, which in most actors’ hands would fail, but in The Life of David Gale, that stellar portfolio adds even greater mystery to Sir Alan Parker’s mix of whodunit and death penalty debate.

David Gale is a college professor and a death penalty abolitionist who lands on death row for the murder of a colleague. He enlists the help of journo Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet) to tell the world his story, all hopefully in time to find the truth and stave off execution.

Gale’s story is told in flashbacks via a series of meetings with Bitsey, recalling the spiralling events that led up to the death of fellow campaigner Constance (Laura Linney).

It is in encounters with Bitsey that Spacey’s prior alter egos feel omnipresent as he adorns jailhouse slacks; in only the way Spacey can, Gale’s pitiful retelling as the wronged family man seems to perhaps shroud transgression beneath; whether intentional or not, the conjured thought of Spacey’s prior turns leaves the question of innocence hanging, all when justice, as ever is presented as infallible.

Bitsey, an honourable young investigative journalist, firstly convinced of guilt, is challenged on her own death penalty stance as his story unfolds, acting as the audience mirror for wavering thoughts on guilt or innocence.

As much as The Life of David Gale is about the misfortune, stupidity or guilt of a dead man walking, the sub-plotted debate on execution is more pivotal and is the wider statement being made; a death penalty abolitionist ending up on death row?  – Elevating one of America’s most controversial quandaries as Gale’s case is reported nationally across the TV news and column inches.

Parker’s direction keeps Gale’s story central throughout, set in past retellings and time shifts to the days prior to his planned execution as Bitsey slowly and climatically gets to the truth; but flamboyant, Se7eny title style jumps from present to past feel ill placed and over stylised when ill at ease with steady, assured direction and plotting throughout.

With much of Gale’s story being told from the past, Winslet’s and Spacey’s cross partition visiting room chat is less seen, missing the opportunity for  greater emotional impact, especially when Bitsey’s demonstrative about turn from staunch death penalty advocate seems rather rapid.

Though some unfolding events are predictable, the whole truth is not so foreseeable, elevating Gale above normal political stance dramas.

The Life of David Gale is a solid commentary on the long debated dilemma of the death sentence, with strong performances as can be expected from two of present day’s finest leads and one man’s captivating and mysterious tale leading to a far more reaching and brilliant conclusion.
(LoveFilm by post)

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15 responses to “Review: The Life of David Gale (2003)

  1. I remember reading Roger Ebert’s review for this film when it was first released. He gave it a 0 out of 4 stars rating and I never understood why.

    • Controversial I know but TBH I often think his reviews are very basic, just don’t get why he’s rated so highly as a reviewer. Just one mans opinion, perhaps i am not seeing it, but he is defo wrong about this one!

    • Just read it out of curiosity and it backed up everything i thought about the man. more political and some of it, without substance. Very sweeping. It’s a movie, not a ballot Mr Ebert.

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