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Dead Man Gawking 

Jawdropper of a drama deserves the chair


Alan Parker
Kevin Spacey, Kate Winslet, Laura Linney

Movies that tackle the subject of capital punishment haven't exactly flooded theaters at any point in cinema history, so the best of this meager output is Tim Robbins' Dead Man Walking, which spent the majority of its running time admirably exploring both sides of this volatile coin before giving in to Robbins' own anti-death penalty beliefs in the final minutes (culminating in murderer Sean Penn's Christ-on-the-cross pose right before his execution).Now take those final minutes of Dead Man Walking, stretch them out over 130 minutes, and the end result might look something like The Life of David Gale, one of the clumsiest "message movies" I have ever squirmed through. Director Alan Parker, no stranger to incendiary entertainment (Mississippi Burning, Midnight Express), has stated he's against the death penalty, and he and the film's stars have taken to touring the nation with the film, holding Q&A sessions on college campuses. That's all well and good, yet for all their real-life convictions, the movie they've made is a complete mess, so ineptly realized that it will doubtless anger viewers on both sides of the debate. It's the sort of sanctimonious, holier-than-thou claptrap that gives liberalism (especially Hollywood liberalism) a bad name, yet what's truly astounding is that the movie then shoots itself not only in the foot but in the bleeding heart as well, offering a series of (mostly predictable) plot twists that undermine every point that Parker and his posse were trying to make.

Where to begin? How about with debuting screenwriter Charles Randolph? His bio states that he's a former philosophy professor who also used to "work for an evangelical group smuggling Bibles into Eastern Europe." For all I know, he may have also spent time as a lawyer, a vet, a mechanic and a Best Buy sales clerk, but the one position he's obviously never held is that of journalist. That's apparent because his curt crusader, Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet), is supposed to be the best reporter at News magazine, but nothing about the journalistic side of this movie rings true, from Bitsey's blase attitude toward what is obviously a career-making story to her astonishing lack of research skills to the intern (Gabriel Mann) who's sent to keep her company on her out-of-state assignment (a publication with a fiscal budget generous enough to fly, feed and board an intern? Where do I apply?). On top of this, you also have to believe that the periodical would pay a half-million dollars for an exclusive interview -- in cash -- and that this cold currency would be entrusted to, yup, the intern, who proceeds to carry it around in a dinky suitcase. Say, is this supposed to be News magazine or MAD magazine?

Anyhow, Bitsey's been summoned to Texas by David Gale (Kevin Spacey), a former college professor and former co-director of the anti-capital punishment group DeathWatch who -- oh, the irony! -- is now sitting on Death Row awaiting his execution for the rape and murder of fellow advocate Constance Harraway (Laura Linney). It's four days before he's sentenced to die, and he isn't as interested in escaping his destiny as much as he wants his name cleared for the sake of his young son. Maintaining his innocence, he spends his limited time with Bitsey outlining his life, specifically how he was once a respected teacher and political activist (we see him debating a Texas governor clearly patterned after George W. Bush) who, after he was wrongly accused of rape by a hot-to-trot student (Rhona Mitra), saw everything go to hell: his job, his marriage, and his ability to just say "no" to the bottle. Shacked up in a dingy hotel and passing most of his hours drunk and wandering the streets while discussing Socrates with himself, he then found his only solace in Constance, who was harboring her own set of scars. Torn up about her subsequent murder, he places his trust in Bitsey to find the real culprits.

Of course, anybody watching The Life of David Gale will know that the real culprits are Parker and Randolph -- if a movie could qualify as a deadly weapon, then this pair would be convicted for brutally bludgeoning audiences with ideology delivered with all the force of a sledgehammer wielded by the Incredible Hulk. For starters, all of the characters who support the death penalty are portrayed as rednecks from Hee Haw Academy, and Parker never passes up a chance to wallop us with a "symbolic" image: Gale in a messianic pose while outstretched on his front lawn, or (this one made me laugh out loud) Bitsey's frantic dash across a cemetery in a last-minute effort to save Gale's life. The incessant proselytizing is wearying enough, but, as stated above, what's especially dumbfounding about this film is the manner in which Parker and Randolph weaken their own arguments. It's hard to elaborate without giving away the movie's twists and turns (though I suspect most half-alert viewers will be able to figure them out on their own), but suffice it to say that in their attempts to pull one over on the audience by tacking on the sort of shock ending that's become the industry norm as of late, Parker and Randolph do a disservice to their political cause by painting its members as irrational zealots who just might have deserved what was coming to them. With friends like these, who needs George W. Bush?

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