Kevin Spacey, who stars in the anti-death penalty movie The Life of David Gale, made a blunder on Charlie Rose a few weeks ago. He told the truth. Rose was interviewing Spacey, the movie's director Alan Parker, and a few other members of the cast. Spacey said the movie's message in the end is "muddled." The others quickly corrected him. The proper word is "ambiguous," they told him.
Spacey had it right the first time. The Life of David Gale is a muddled movie which inadvertently lends credence to the death penalty and reveals some opponents of it as fringe freaks. Parker calls their tortured attempt in the movie at fooling the state into executing a supposedly innocent man a "noble sacrifice." Audience goers will call it idiocy.
"The possibility of an innocent being executed is the single most important argument that could possibly sway public opinion (and hence is the crux of our movie," Parker writes on Universal Pictures' website for the movie. There is only one problem here: David Gale isn't innocent. At least not in any fundamental moral sense.
He isn't framed except by himself. The state gets the right man after all. He is about as innocent of murder as Jack Kevorkian. Parker, without realizing it, makes assisted suicide look a lot more cruel and unusual than the death penalty.
In his notes about the movie on Universal's website, Parker also laments that minorities receive the penalty disproportionately. But cheer up, Mr. Parker: David Gale is a white guy from the leisure class. Gale is a prosperous professor of philosophy before a rape charge sends his life into a tailspin.
The movie is full of contradictions, some amusing, some not. Kate Winslet plays a tough-cookie reporter so brimming with integrity that she will serve time in jail rather than compromise a source. But once out, she is not above shoveling cash to Gale's lawyer for an interview on death row.
Parker presents Texas as a benighted state, full of hicks who haven't read a thing save pro-vengeance passages from the Bible. But apparently backwards Texas is also a hotbed of philosophical scholarship. Parker has David Gale, a brilliant Rhodes Scholar who finishes at the top of his Harvard class, pursue his academic life in the Lone Star state. A very interesting and convenient career move.
David Gale, though a philosopher, can't come up with a philosophical argument against the death penalty, so resorts to a polemical death gag that reflects more badly on death penalty opponents than on the system. If you go to great lengths to make yourself deliberately look like a murderer, and the state says, "Yes, you look like a murderer," you and your friends don't have much grounds to complain.
Gale is a sick jerk, lying and manipulating with abandon according to an ends-justify-the-means calculus only morally arrogant liberals could concoct. Moviegoers won't shed a tear for this bathetic blowhard in their cars on the way home.
It is odd that Parker feels so squeamish about the death penalty when his movie betrays no squeamishness about romanticizing an absolutely unnecessary and grisly death.
"I find the practice so abhorrent I just don't want to watch it," Parker says of the death penalty. Viewers may say the same about his detailed depiction of an assisted suicide. "When you kill someone, you rob their family," one of the characters says. Except apparently when you are killing yourself. "In the end, a civilized society must live with a hard truth: he who seeks revenge digs two graves," the character says.
In the end, the movie is not about revenge, but about two demented death penalty opponents who dug their own graves.