The cruel and unusual Life of David Gale.

Reviews of the latest films.
March 3 2003 9:26 AM

Flip the Switch

The Life of David Gale makes the electric chair seem humane.

Which one is the victim here? Maybe neither
Which one is the victim here? Maybe neither

It's often said of movie critics that we're jaded creatures, calloused from all the cinematic assaults that we're forced to endure. But in fact we're not much good unless we manage to stay open and receptive to what we see—to all of it, from the high crap to the low art. I cry all the time at bad soap operas. I laugh like a baboon at puerile slapstick. I put my hands over my face during acts of screen violence—or whenever someone sticks a needle in someone's arm, even. I am a very, very sensitive soul.

I'm rationalizing like mad to excuse having chickened out of seeing The Life of David Gale (Universal), the Alan Parker anti-death penalty movie that opened last week. I just couldn't bear to put myself through it. Parker has been responsible for some of the worst cinematic battering-rams of our time: After Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers (1994), which belongs in some special circle of hell, I can think of no more contemptible piece of filmmaking than Parker's self-proclaimed tribute to the Civil Rights movement, Mississippi Burning (1988). Forget—if you can—that the African-Americans were pushed off to the sidelines to make way for the white FBI heroes. The more philosophical outrage was that Parker took the most successful non-violent resistance movement since Gandhi and made it fodder for a vigilante movie—a coarse, thumping melodrama about the ways in which noble ends justify barbaric means. There were actors I wanted to see in The Life of David Gale, but the mere prospect of more liberal politics wedded to more fascist film techniques was a threat to my fragile constitution.

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This week was a slow one for openings, however, and I got a very flattering e-mail from a reader named Elizabeth Chadwick, who had seen David Gale and asked if I could apply my "superior intellect" to the question of "why the film got made." She added that all she got from the movie was that there are "crazy, mixed-up people on both sides of the death penalty question." I haven't read a lot of the negative reviews, but it's rare to find the normally judicious, lucid, and indefatigably liberal Roger Ebert in a semi-coherent froth.

Maybe it was time to see The Life of David Gale. I'd just seen Gaspar Noé's Irréversible, a film already notorious for its protracted scenes of rape and murder. I'd had a beer and a shot of whiskey. I figured I could handle Alan Parker, whatever he threw at me.

The verdict? Sorry, Elizabeth, it would take an intellect far superior to mine to explain the rationale—or, for that matter, the release—of David Gale. But it certainly wasn't as torturous as I'd feared. In fact, I hooted all the way through it. All that was missing was the little Mystery Science Theater silhouettes under the screen making cracks about the heroine's car—one of those junk-heaps engineered to break down only in the event of a last-second rush to the scene of an execution with a piece of exonerating evidence—or the ominous shots of barbed-wire fences and heavy locks, meant to make you cringe at the horror of a maximum-security prison having, er, security.

Kate Winslet plays one of those reporters who only has conversations while hurtling down corridors. Her name is Bitsy. Three days before his scheduled execution, she is summoned to the cell of David Gale, one of those tenured philosophy professors and outspoken critics of capital punishment who always manage to land on Death Row in Texas (which, the governor points out helpfully, is not France or Germany).

When I heard the title of the movie, it hit me that David Gale was the name of the late actor who in the great 1985 splatter flick Re-Animator played a mad scientist who did X-rated things with his own severed head. Kevin Spacey's character enthused over Re-Animator in American Beauty (1999): Was this the life of that David Gale? Alas, it's not. This David Gale plans to tell Bitsy his life story, and in so doing break through her much-ballyhooed "journalistic objectivity." He's the nice Hannibal Lecter. Gale knows she's in for a wild ride: "This is not going to be easy, Bitsy." Sure enough, she is soon being followed by a man in a 10-gallon hat who listens to Puccini in his pickup. Who knows what madness lurks in the minds of opera-crazed cowboys?

There is really no way to address the larger insanity of The Life of David Gale without giving away the surprise ending—a surprise only by virtue of its idiocy. Fair warning? Here goes: The nerdy professor (Laura Linney) was dying of leukemia anyway, so she and the Cowboy and David Gale rigged her kinky rape and murder to make Gale into a death-penalty martyr. When the truth is revealed to her, Bitsy does not say, "What a bunch of fruitcakes." Her eyes fill with tears at the noble logic of it all.

As I've implied, this is a great midnight movie: I enjoyed every patchily edited, ham-fisted scene. But I don't like seeing the wonderful Kate Winslet look stupid, or the wonderful Laura Linney abase herself. And I was depressed to realize, once again, that the greatest danger to liberalism isn't the likes of Rush Limbaugh or Andrew Sullivan, but blowhards like Alan Parker and Michael Moore—the thugs of humanism. Given the way in which it's administered, I don't support the death penalty for people. But I emphatically support it for certain careers.

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.