Wednesday, August 27, 2003

The Life of David Gale

There are no fewer than four films featuring Kevin Spacey on my Essentials list, two in the top ten. During the period of my life when it became clear to me that I wanted to be a filmmaker, Spacey churned out incredible performance after incredible performance -- L.A. Confidential, The Big Kahuna, and, of course, his Oscar-winning turn in American Beauty. I watched Spacey bring the house down on Inside the Actor's Studio, and kill in the "Star Wars Auditions" sketch on Saturday Night Live. He was my favorite actor.

But something happened after that second Oscar. Something about his melodramatic role in Pay It Forward made me worry long before that film torpedoed itself into the garbage. The Shipping News? Kevin, you have two Oscars already, you don't need to mine for more. K-PAX? This is a joke, right? Where the hell was Verbal Kint? Lester Burnham? What happened?

I saw the trailer for The Life of David Gale, and didn't want to see it. Never mind that Alan Parker (director of such diverse films as Angela's Ashes and Pink Floyd: The Wall) was behind the camera. And never mind Spacey. I had given up. But something compelled me. Maybe Spacey deserved another chance. So I caved.

I've got good news and bad news. The bad news: The Life of David Gale is an embarassing disaster, and one of the most intellectually offensive films I've seen in a while. The good news: it's not Spacey's fault.

In New York, reporter Bitsey (?) Bloom (Kate Winslet) is coming off a well-publicized jail term for refusing to reveal her sources in a story about kiddie porn. Her integrity under fire has earned her a special assignment: head down to Texas and interview death row inmate David Gale (Spacey), sentenced to die in three days for the rape and murder of his friend and colleague, Constance Harroway (Laura Linney). It seems Gale and Harroway were both high-ranking officials for DeathWatch, an anti-death penalty group, and both very outspoken death penalty abolitionists. Gale has never given an interview before now, and specifically requests Bitsey for the job. And even though "Dammit, you know I work alone," Bitsey is assigned an intern, Zack (Gabriel Mann), to help her work out the various plot twists. They end up in a rental car with a flashing "overheating" light, which would be inexcusably obvious foreshadowing if a brief flash-forward at the start of the film didn't spoil that suspense for us.

Right off the bat, the script (Charles Randolph's first) is downright embarrassing in its liberal bias. Zack says things like "Ninety percent of all serial killers vote Republican." Bitsey talks about Gale's guilt with such conviction that her eventual change of heart is hardly a surprise. And things get no better once we meet Gale: he tells Bitsey at their first meeting, "No one looks through that glass and sees a person. They see a crime." The guards at the prison are heartless bullies who scream at Gale for standing and refuse to turn the volume down on the speakers. Now I'm the last person to stand up for the conservatives, but jeez.

At its heart, the movie is a standard investigative thriller -- Gale proclaims his innocence, and pieces of information pop up that may support his side of the story. There's a videotape of the crime that may or may not exist, and of course a Mysterious Stalker following Bitsey and Zack around -- a cowboy who listens to opera tails them in a pickup truck (headlights off, but they still manage to spot him every time). There are a few odd touches I like -- the goth chick that's moved into the house where the murder occurred and turned it into a macabre museum, complete with guided tour and a complimentary photo pack -- but there's not much here you've never seen before.

If there's anything to keep you awake through the thriller portions of Gale, it's Spacey, who turns in his best performance since...well, since American Beauty. Gale is a man who knows he's made mistakes -- he cheated on his wife with a student (which resulted in a bogus rape charge), he's an alcoholic, he's an egotistical glory hound -- and is saddened that he's unable to atone for them. In Spacey's hands, he's both angry and amused by the irony of his predicament and the skill of those who placed him there. It may not be his best work, but it's a step back on track.

Elsewhere, the acting's not much to speak of. Laura Linney has little to do with her character, mainly just frowning and spitting out statistics. Kate Winslet, meanwhile, has a character arc so perfunctory that it's a testament to her talent that she doesn't look bored. Gabriel Mann, unfortunately, has even less to do, and does nothing worth noting.

So as a suspense picture, Gale churns along competently, if not originally or particularly interestingly. But the film totally comes apart when Parker and Randolph decide to get political. Pages of dialogue are committed to exposing the various flaws in the death penalty system. The governor is described as a "frat boy" and says things like "I say let's bring 'em in, strap 'em down, and rock 'n' roll." In a television debate with Gale, Gale compares him to Hitler and offers still more statistics; in response, the governor quotes the bible. The film is placed in Texas, which makes it even easier to make those in favor of executions look like lunatics, helped along with dialogue like, "You know you're in the bible belt when there are more churches than Starbucks." (Huh?)

And then there's the ending, which I won't spoil (though I had it called from the trailer). It has the notable aspect of being both completely nonsensical and entirely predictable; it also manages to totally undermine all of the arrogant conservative-bashing in a single shot. Thus the only barely competent thriller aspect of the film manages to fall on its face, as well. I'm sure that Parker and Randolph think they've made an intelligent suspense picture that says some important things about the state of the death penalty in America. But they've made the exact opposite -- a boring, predictable mess that contradicts its own heavy-handed message in the desire to get one last "Gotcha!" out of the audience.

Well, Kevin, you're once again a respectable actor. But, please, for my sake and yours: fire your agent.

Rating: *

No comments:

Post a Comment