As you watch The Life of David Gale with increasing incredulity at what is unfolding in front of you, you wonder what possessed Universal Pictures to finance such an offensively awful film. A heavy-handed, badly-acted, and overwought Death Row drama, it is one of those films that provokes laughter when it should be serious, tense, and above all, believable. Cynical fans of trash moviemaking may find there’s some entertainment value in it. The trouble is, The Life of David Gale doesn’t even have the decency to be a proper B-movie.
Winslet plays a hard-nosed, investigative journalist called (believe it or not) Bitsey Bloom. Bitsey is sent to Texas to interview David Gale (creepily played by Spacey), an anti-death penalty activist who’s been accused of murdering co-activist Constance Harraway (Linney) and now finds himself three days away from execution. She is skeptical of his innocence at first(he had been in the past falsely accused of raping a student – one of many unnecessary subplots), but a tape that is sent to her motel room (by a ‘mysterious’ cowboy who listens to classical music and drives in every time the needs some ‘suspense’ – you guess who the sender is straight away), suggests he may be innocent. She puts two and two together and changes her mind, starting a race against time to save Gale.
Scripted by first-timer Charles Randolph, this is a tragic union of subtlety-phobic practitioners. Parker, never a director known for his lightness of touch, destroys the plodding, overcomplicated script. Winslet delivers the worst performance of her career (not that she’s a very cerebral actor anyway) with a terrible American accent and a mistaken idea of what a reporter is like: you’ll cringe when she starts asking questions to Gale on their first meeting, and even more when she starts piecing the ‘puzzle’ together before a gobsmacked goth – perhaps the only entertaining detail in this convoluted mess.
Spacey, meanwhile, is nothing short of embarrassing, wheeling out another mannered, derivative and wholly unsympathetic performance. The last part of the film is so hammy that you would think that it would suddenly reveal itself to be an inspired satire, like the one depicted by Robert Altman at the end of The Player. But no – Parker is a ‘serious’ commercial director, cinema’s equivalent of progressive rock: self-aggrandising, hated by most, but lumbering on regardless. Parker doesn’t ‘do’ pastiche, just pretence.
Last but not least is the film’s claim to present a point of view on the death penalty, when it doesn’t even bother to get started, or even attempt to address the range of issues involved. The Life of David Gale is an utter farce, rigged with false starts, pointless red herrings and utter contempt for the audience’s intelligence. If there is one good thing about this film it is that it may put Alan Parker’s career to sleep for good.