Director: Alan Parker
Writer: Charles Randolph
Stars: Kevin Spacey, Kate Winslet, Laura Linney
Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller
The Message, The Runner, The Path
How far can an activist go to support their claim, and at what point do they become radicals? Is a journalist morally obligated to share his or her resources? Or should they violate the “off the record” principle and publish the truth? Until what point, laws must protect and support the testimony of the victims? Is there any crime that demands the death penalty?
The movie, directed by Alan Parker in 2003, The Life of David Gale, walks on the edges of these ethical questions and maybe sometimes falls on the wrong side. While it is seemed to against of death penalty at first glance, it implicitly seeds the idea that the opponents of the penalty are extremist activists and criminalized fraudsters. Distinguished Criticism Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Ebert criticized the movie is focusing on the wrong story in the right setting (2003):
“You can make movies that support capital punishment (“The Executioner’s Song”) or oppose it (“Dead Man Walking”) or are conflicted (“In Cold Blood”). But while Texas continues to warehouse condemned men with a system involving lawyers who are drunk, asleep, or absent; confessions that are beaten out of the helpless, and juries that overwhelmingly prefer to execute black defendants instead of white ones, you can’t make this movie. Not in Texas.”
This issue of racism can be felt not only in the white-washed cast but also in the prison scenes where nearly all of the convicts are black except our protagonist David Gale (Kevin Spacey), who was an esteemed university professor, zealous Death Watch activist, a group who are against the death penalty, but now a convicted rapist and murderer who is sentenced to death. He only trusts one person that can save him and clear his name: Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet), who is a top reporter known for her integrity for the profession.
When the two met in prison for interviews, David tells the story of how he is being framed by right-wing politicians that supports capital punishment. While flashbacks keep revealing the truth, Bitsey starts to believe his innocence and her race against time begins to save this innocent man. When a mysterious cowboy figure starts to stalk Bitsey and her intern Zack (Gabriel Mann), the tension of the movie climbs, and the investigation deepens. Up until the last minute and the last scene, no one can be trusted, and no one is innocent, no one is guilty.
In terms of women’s representation, the movie cannot be claimed as diverse or adequate, considering two of the major female roles are white women. It would be unfair to say they have served as stepping-stones to male character development, but it would also be unfair to not mention their struggle with the patriarchy was sloppily written and even unnecessary. Some of these scenes where Bitsey confronts men were only written just the sake of being challenged by her. In addition, in the very first scene where Bitsey was introduced, she even accepts her boss attaining her an intern, while she clearly utters, she does not need such. Moreover, her intern Zack directly offering sex in the middle of the investigation was absolutely no use for the plot nor the character development.
On the other hand, while she is a crucial character for the plot, Berlin (Rhona Mitra), not only functions as a stepping-stone for David Gale but also “a cliché is tortured” through her character: rebellious, sexy, seductive; femme fatale stereotype.
Similarly, Constance Harraway (Laura Linney) is another woman stereotype who is a colleague and friend of David Gale; she is a smart, caring, helpful, frigid stereotype but happens to be regretful that she did not have enough “lovers.”
However, our protagonist or villain or anti-hero (our everything), David Gale, is paralleling himself with another unjustly sentenced to death convict: Socrates. When Socrates is sentenced to death by Thirty Tyrants for his allegedly religious, political, and sex crimes, he is asked to decide his own punishment by the Athenian law and Trial. Because of his arrogant, confrontational, and condescending attitude, he offers 30 minae (silver coin) for his crimes at the Trial. By doing so, he, in a way, consented to his own death, which is probably what David Gale sympathized with.
If I have to draw another parallel line to David Gale, I would have chosen the actor who portrays him: Kevin Spacey. He has been charged with a felony for allegedly child sexual abuse. Later, the charges were dropped due to “missing evidence” and the death of the accuser. What is parallel about these cases is the lines between victims and offenders are being blurred, who is being framed or falsely accused is not clear. However, the laws must protect and support those who experience violence.
To sum up, while The Life of David Gale has the powerful and controversial ethical questions to ask and the right setting to dig deeper, it lacks the right story, characters, and perspective. While it has stereotypical female characters; a femme fatale, a prudish, and a feminist caricature, it implicitly promotes white male supremacy. It has its powerful messages, but it does not have the right runner nor path.
Ebert, R. (2003, February 21). The life of David gale movie Review (2003): Roger Ebert. Retrieved February 12, 2021, from https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-life-of-david-gale-2003#:~:text=%22The%20Life%20of%20David%20Gale,also%20opposed%20to%20capital%20punishment