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‘The Life of David Gale’ ***

Turrisi, Andrew T. III MD

doi: 10.1097/01.COT.0000289845.71607.92
Turrisi Takes on the Movies

Professor and Chair, Department of Radiation Oncology, Medical University of South Carolina

Starring Kevin Spacey, Kate Winslet, Laura Linney. Co-starring Gabriel Mann as Bitsey Bloom's sidekick, Zack; Matt Craven as Dusty Rhodes, the mysterious man in the pickup truck; Rhona Mitra as Berlin, the predatory student; and Leon Rippy as Braxton Belyeu, attorney at law. Directed by Alan Parker; Written by Charles Randolph. 130 minutes, Rated R

Premeditated and ponderous, with some difficulty overcoming disbelief, but what works, works really well!

This movie is as anti-death penalty as they come, but it does not follow some of the scripted time-honored ploys of Dead Man Walking or The Green Mile—tear-jerking and heart-string pulling with overly sympathetic characters.

“While it's true, as many critics have said, that the story has some preachy and dj vu moments, there are also some truly wonderful parts that make this movie well worth seeing.”

It pulls some strings of its own, but the movie has been panned by some of the best (zero stars by Roger Ebert, for example), who mostly seem to object that the movie was too formulaic and poked fun at Texas (Don't mess with Texas).

Others have simply withheld praise because it was not worth the effort of heavyweight director, the Brit Alan Parker, who has done some really good movies (Mississippi Burning, Birdy, Shoot the Moon and Midnight Express) as well as some awful ones (The Road to Wellville and Evita) or Kevin Spacey.

While the story has some preachy and dj vu moments, there were some truly wonderful parts that made up, for me at least, for some of the more awful parts.

You should see this one and make of your own mind, so I will not want to ruin some of the suspense and give away any of the revelations about the murder.

The movie opens with a sequence about a rent-a-car overheating on a desolate road that plays a larger than necessary part in the climactic ending. Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet) is at the wheel, and she unfolds as an investigative reporter that seems to be too much a part of the story than a fair-minded observer—a combination of Geraldo and Connie Chung.

She has been selected to interview death row inmate David Gale, now with only a week to live. In one of the typical turns, it seems that she too quickly believes that an anti-death penalty philosophy professor is capable of murdering his best friend and colleague in his avocation of crusading against the death penalty.

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Eccentric, But Captivating and Charismatic

What would drive such a person? Gale is revealed as an eccentric but captivating and charismatic professor who makes his students think with provocative lectures. He seems to be married more to his professorial role and his avocation to curb the death penalty than to his wife and marriage. We learn that she is probably conducting an affair in Barcelona rather than visiting her envoy father in Madrid.

But the too cute and adorable son has his emotional hooks into Daddy Gale, and the sequences with the boy are real tugs at the heart. The seductress failing student, Berlin (Rhona Mitra), probes his virtue in student-teacher relations, as she slinks in as the lecture is nearly over. She cloyingly begs that she would do anything to pass his course with those sly come-hither eyes, and he passes the first test by whispering: “Study.”

A drunken, poorly crafted limerick faculty bash (they must have better parties in Texas than we have in South Carolina) turns into a second seduction, and his ability to avoid the femme fatale proves less virtuous than the first encounter.

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Double-Barreled Trouble

Our star-crossed Gale finds double-barreled trouble as the student charges him with rape, and the charge is sufficient to allow pretext for his philandering wife to take his son away permanently. The father-son connection and its roots in this imbroglio seem to have been overlooked by the pundits, who want to focus more on how far-fetched this entire death penalty plot is and how ponderous and neat all of the details are wrapped in the end.

The loss of his son sets Gale reeling into self-defeating drunken rages and stupors. No longer in the classroom because of the violation of the teacher-student taboo, and too full of himself to be an effective debater with the slick but deft governor in a TV spot about the death penalty, he is stymied by the governor's question: “Can you name one innocent person who has been executed?”

Constance Harraway is the less flamboyant, dowdier leader of the anti-death penalty group, Death Watch. This is a group that obviously is committed to working the Texas circuit, where the clemency board finds no fault with sleeping or inebriated attorneys. They fight the good fight and always lose.

Constance is solid as a rock, always factual, and emotionally steady, in stark contrast to the fiery and arrogant Gale. Constance is found passed out in her house by the wandering Gale, who blows over to see her in a daze.

We learn that she has leukemia. Now we now there are great oncologists who know how to take care of leukemia in Texas with equal success to the lethal injections in Huntsville. It is, however, clear from the outset that she is doomed with this illness, just as we are sure that the Texas Clemency Board will find no clemency for a convicted murderer.

Somehow we have to suspend disbelief and believe that Gale has it in him to murder his best friend and colleague after he knows that she has a terminal illness.

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Suspense, Ominousness

The two implacable characters in the movie, Braxton Belyeu, the pony-tailed marginally competent lawyer, and Dusty Rhodes, the ominous, cowboy-hatted pick-up driver, provide a needed aura of suspense and ominousness that works to properly misdirect and add authenticity.

Belyeu is an anti-death penalty pal, but seems to show up at the wrong time, and never looking savory. Rhodes seems like he must be a bad guy, but then we learn he was involved romantically with Constance—or was he? Are these good guys or bad guys?

So how can I like this melodrama? The unlikely plots and the too predictable twist are actually more suspenseful and gripping than you might divine.



Spacey plays the bereft father with skill and emotion. He cannot find life with his heart extracted by an unforgiving and punishing wife. His drunken soliloquies and rages are credible and well done.

Being a drunk has always been a classic way to win an award in Hollywood—the most memorable for me was Nicolas Cage's Ben Sanderson in Leaving Las Vegas. He got the Oscar for that performance, which I feel was a lesser role and less credible than Kevin Spacey's David Gale.

I confess, I am a Kevin Spacey devotee, but I found his role and performance in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil simply maladroit and totally miscast. So can I distinguish a schlock performance from my favorite actor?

Kate Winslow has been bashed for the Bitsey Bloom role—a part perhaps a bit over the edge, but she modulates it well. The back and forth between Bitsey and Zack Stemmons (Gabriel Mann) who plays Jimmy Olsen to her Lois Lane, was well done.

The improbable overheating car and the mad dash to the death house were not to be laid at Winslet's feet, but perhaps the script could have let the action roll more credibly without resorting to the phony gimmicks that lessened an already interesting and emotionally grabbing story.

The resolution of the problems is episodically revealed in videotapes of Constance Harraway's death. In the end you know exactly what was done, and precisely how and why it was done.

We even find a nice tight resolution, no loose ends, for everything, even what happens to the money that the newspaper pays for the story.

We find out for sure that Gale was a man of principle, and that he made his point. Many see only the point that he wanted to make about the death penalty, but I was most moved by how denying this man his child made his life no longer worth living. His last meal order underscores what this was about to the character.

This most surely is an imperfect film, but achieves elements of great performance and elicits genuine emotions even to tough old cancer doctors, who see lots of undeserved deaths.

© 2003 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.
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