I admire a film I know I'll watch again just because it can be so entertaining and unforgettable. However, watching a film over just because I think I might have missed the point tends to make me cranky! Don't get me wrong; I love a film that makes me think, and "The Life of David Gale" makes me think of nothing significant, or it makes me think how much I just don't care! It's regrettable because the actors all do a fine job of keeping you in suspense throughout the film, but they just can't save this all-too-unfocused shipwreck of a fictional tale.
I can't complain about Kevin Spacey, as David Gale; he's always been one of my favorite performers. Kate Winslet, as a surefire news magazine reporter named Bitsey Bloom, does an exceptional job. Even Gabriel Mann, as Bitsey's chain-smoking, intern sidekick Zack Stemmons, manages to hold his own. Then there's the murder victim, Constance Harraway, who is played by Laura Linney. Considering the overall theme of the film, the story would have been better suited to the struggles of her character.
To give you the short version, the film is about making a point that the death-penalty system is flawed. As if many of us didn't know this already? The film certainly does make a biased point for those against the system. The story begins as David Gail sits on death row and has three days to tell Bitsey Bloom his story, in a series of one-on-one interviews, of how he managed to land himself in the Texas death penalty system. He begins to tell her of a reputable life as a virtuous college professor with a wonderful wife and a five-year-old son. On the side, he works with an organization known as "Death Watch," run by his friend Constance Harraway. One evening, while the wife is out of town (you never know why or find out too much about her), he manages to get drunk at a party and ends up having some considerably aggressive casual sex with one of his students in a bathroom. The student presses rape charges the next day, and, of course, we all know it was consensual sex. Nevertheless, this one event sends his life into a downward spiral.
Let me point out that we already are witnessing many imperfections and loopholes at every turn. You never know much about his wife, who immediately leaves David and takes their son with her. Not that I blame her after his impassioned affair; however, you never have any insight into the relationship he had with his wife. It's indistinguishable whether they did or did not have marital problems, nor do you know if David had a difficult issue with alcohol at an early stage. Nevertheless, any hope in having sympathy for Gale is slowly diminished with every scene. David's wife eventually ends up in Barcelona without giving any consideration to the audience as to why she went all the way to Spain!
Later on the student with whom he had the liaison drops charges, but not without proving she could screw up his life just because Professor Gale wouldn't give her a passing grade. Not to mention, it is too obvious that certain students, and teachers, knew what kind of a girl she was. Let's be honest: mixed drinks, and a house full of drunken college students and teachers, there's bound to be sex…didn't any of these people see "Animal House"? What really confused me even more was the absence of any single person coming to Gale's defense, even after we see how well he's admired and respected by his peers. However, in the end, David still looks like a serial rapist. I guess at this point I just had to buy it all and hope the story got better.
Gale soon drowns his sorrows in the bottle, loses his teaching job, and is eventually lowered into a blue-collar job as a manager of a place known as "Radioshed." During this time, he remains good friends with Constance, always helping with her struggles in Death Watch, but not without further destroying his own life in alcohol. By Bitsey's third interview with David, we learn that Constance had leukemia and was certain to die very soon. Well, with David's life in a pathetic state, and with Constance counting the days until she meets the grim reaper, it isn't hard to figure out where the plot will take us. Keep in mind that the point of the film is to show the audience how the death penalty is flawed. In other words, it really isn't all that hard to do the math. In fact, Constance has her mysterious cowboy friend (whom you also know very little about) video tape her death.
Bitsey, mysteriously, gets a copy of the tape in her motel room, but she soon figures there's more to the purpose of the video. With what smarts she has, she manages to find the actual tape concealed at the strange cowboy's house, which reveals much more. Now she finds herself on a pursuit against time to get the tape to the authorities before David's life is extinguished. Of course, this leads to the more exciting part of the film as she is on a race to what should seemingly be an effective ending. She even manages to find herself running on foot due to her Ford Taurus rental car overheating. Let me mention that even the car was inconsistent as it overheated early on in the film, and as it was a rental you'd think Bitsey would have taken the car back to the rental agency by, at least, the second day, no?
Of all the stories director Alan Parker could have found to make a statement about the death penalty, he picked a vague, pointless fictional tale. I'm sure there could have been a story far more interesting in proving the death penalty is flawed. I know I've seen better stories on NBC's "Dateline" about how DNA saved someone innocent from death row. However, I guess Mr. Parker felt that filming a story about how some guy makes his life so pathetic that you just don't care what happens to him is better.
Had the story given more focus to the cause that Constance was fighting, the film might have had a stronger conviction. Oh, and let's not forget the big shocking ending this film claimed in its previews. Well, it's no shock at all! Once you figure out what really happens, and as diluted as the story is, you just don't care. Unfortunately, the story is more about watching a man lose control of his life and less about keeping the focus on the issues of the death penalty. By the time it gets to the end it, quite simply, has very little impact.
I watched this title in anamorphic widescreen, 2.35:1. This film does come in a full-frame version as well. I, like everyone else here at DVD Town, will always recommend widescreen over full-frame, except in the cases of where the film was originally made in 1.33 or television broadcast. The color on this film is very exceptional with a sharp, crisp picture. However, the colors are mostly depressing, dull, earth tones along with a few darker moments, which have very little grain. You rarely see bright, vibrant colors, and I can only assume this was done on purpose as a way to keep the mood of the film subdued.
I can't complain too much here. Audio is presented in Dolby 5.1 English, Spanish, and French. The delivery, at least on my system, had good dynamics and was well balanced for the most part. The film is a suspense drama, so when it comes to audio it's nothing too special. Bottom line is the audio does the job it needs to for this film; it's just nothing you would show off to your friends.
This DVD does manage to have a few extras. First, you get an audio commentary from the film's director, Alan Parker. And, yes, I still find commentaries tend to bore me to tears; oh, well. Next on the list is a featurette on the making of the film and the musical score. I don't see why they did a feature part on the making of the music, though. The film's score was fitting for the film, but it's nothing that stands out as being memorable. Next is a featurette on the Texas death penalty system. This feature has the potential of being the most interesting part of the DVD, but it only makes a few short, valid points and then is cut short. Next in the bundle of extras is a group of deleted scenes, which really don't do anything to add to the film's lackluster plot. Nevertheless, getting some deleted scenes is better than getting nothing. Of course, the DVD also comes with the original trailer of the film as well as the usual scene selection menu.
Parting Stabs & Jabs:
It isn't that "The Life of David Gale" plays like an appallingly mediocre film, and it does do a good job in tricking the audience into thinking there's something more in every suspenseful step. It's just that the film is so profoundly out of center with the point it's trying to make. We get caught up in David Gale's downfall, watch him turn into a pathetic individual, and by the end find he's not worth caring about. The film has way too many flawed and tarnished moments, a convoluted blundered tale, and it never makes a final point that is worthy of being called a "shocking ending"! What point the film does make is so one-sided that it leaves very little interest for discussion or argument. It's unfortunate because many of the elements for a good film are all here. It has good acting, decent cinematography, and well-balanced suspenseful moments, but in the end the film is simply shooting blanks.