The Life of David Gale
"Come and See the Violence Inherent in the System!"

A few weeks ago, actors Kevin Spacey, Kate Winslet, and Laura Linney were on the Charlie Rose show along with Alan Parker, who directed them in The Life of David Gale. Now, Rose is an enthusiastic host, especially with entertainers, and his ingratiating manner is contagious. Still, the praise that gushed out of the actors about the script, about the finished film, and particularly about the director (which Parker lapped up like an overfed tiger), seemed excessive even by press junket standards. The only pauses in their revelry came when Linney uttered hesitant explanations for some of her previous film work, how she was ashamed to have prostituted her gifts on unworthy projects, but how she felt honored and redeemed by having worked with such distinguished company on such a notable and important film.

The other guests were gracious, telling her that these things happened--though perhaps not to them personally. I was thinking yeah, Congo was a long time ago, lighten up. After her third apology or so, it hit me--she was talking about The Mothman Prophecies! After all, that was the movie she chose to follow her Oscar nominated turn in You Can Count on Me, her Emmy winning role in Wild Iris, her striking villainy as Bertha Dorset in The House of Mirth, and a few other high-minded projects. And then she goes and makes a genre film for money! The horror! Mothman isn't a perfect film, but it made an honest effort at dramatizing the interference of unknowable entities in human lives. It didn't have the genius to pull off the unwieldy source material, but it was intelligent and ambitious in its way. Furthermore, as a sympathetic sheriff's deputy, she proved for the second time (after Primal Fear) to be the rare co-star capable of humanizing Richard Gere.

So it bothered me to see her soliciting, and receiving, the smug reassurances of the people responsible for the likes of the appalling American Beauty, Holy Smoke, Quills, and one of the most pernicious mainstream movies I've ever seen-- Mississippi Burning. These movies are not just bad they are toxic. This is not to say they should never have been made, or that their distribution should cease. I do not believe in censorship. But just as artists have the right to create, audiences have the right to criticize. Restraint in art is important, though.

For every horrific image, sound, or statement in the world, even if the creator had only noble or educational intentions, there is at least one person getting off on it--probably right now. Vigilance is essential, and over-reaction up to the point of physical harm, the destruction of unique artifacts (with the exception of that Koran written in Saddam's blood), or that of another person's property--is in-bounds. While I do not necessarily agree with the behavior, for example, I will vigorously defend the right of any American to destroy his or her Dixie Chicks cd.

Likewise, I cannot fault the passion with which the actors and director promoted their project, nor with how dismissive they were of the typical Hollywood product, trite little nothings in comparison to David Gale. In fact, they intrigued. After getting an ear-full about what they thought was stupid, I could not wait to see what they considered genius. By the time Charlie Rose was finished with their segment, the movie had jumped from my list of "skipable agitprop" to "must see." For while it is unwise and unfair to use members of the entertainment industry as guides to, say, foreign policy, when they pronounce upon the worth and politics of their own work, it's game-on.

Simply by setting David Gale in Texas, the filmmakers put the movie's politics center stage. You cannot look at the doofus bible-bashing governor and not recognize the swipe at the former Texas governor and sitting president, and the constituency that put him in both positions. That's why, early in the movie, one of the character states that something like 77% of American serial killers vote Republican. This seems counterintuitive, because the movie takes pains to indicate that Republicans/ conservatives are very keen on executing murderers. Whatever, as long as people die. After that, the complaints about those benighted legions get pretty feeble. The Book of Virtues is boring? Ooooh, stop! You "don't trust a state with more churches than Starbucks"? As Mark Steyn pointed out, that would be all of them. Also, the waitresses are gauche.

As it turns out, the Republican bashing is a smoke screen. It's something like that bit in The Manchurian Candidate where the benign liberal congressman says his malign McCarthy-ite colleague and his Lady MacBeth styled wife could not be more dangerous if they were paid Soviet agents. The joke was they were paid Soviet agents, and the more they carried on about the Communist threat the less likely the American people were to take it seriously. Likewise, The Life of David Gale comes on with liberal bluster a-plenty, but its liberalism is a joke. By the time it ended, I was persuaded the filmmakers really and truly believed conservatives want to execute murderers. I was more convinced that they, consciously or not, imagined that there is nothing in this world more arrogant, deceitful, treacherous, and finally murderous than liberals with an agenda.

And let me be clear here, too, that by "liberal," I am not referring to classical liberal philosophy that inspired, for instance, the Constitution of the United States. Rather, it is the oppressive mess that currently goes by that honorable title. Rather than an adherence to a handful of noble principles, such as the rule of law and certain inalienable rights for all people, contemporary liberalism wallows in self-pity and self-righteousness that poisons reasoned debate. This isn't to say conservatives are entirely civil or blameless in public discourse. But frankly, the complaints against them are numbingly familiar whereas liberals seem bottomlessly ridiculous. That's one reason the work of equal opportunity offenders like Trey Parker & Matt Stone (of South Park fame), Mike Judge (Beevis & Butthead, Office Space, King of the Hill), and the team behind The Simpsons is so potent--the liberal establishment constantly supplies the creators with red meat. Attacks against pious squares, in contrast, are the creative equivalent of licking lichen off of a rock. To extend the metaphor, The Life of David Gale may be a symptom of liberalism that has been so deprived of fresh conservative meals that it has begun to eat itself.

The movie's title character, played by Kevin Spacey, is a liberal philosophy professor convicted of the clumsy yet brutal rape and murder of his colleague and fellow death penalty abolitionist Constance Harraway (Laura Linney), who finds himself on death row. That's like three ironies just in the set-up, and a first taste of the movie's cutesy cleverness. (Incidentally, there are spoilers ahead, so if you wanted to watch the movie with the expectation of being amazed by its twists and turns, well you wouldn't be because the twists and turns are lame, but here's your heads up anyway.)

First, if Gale were so smart, why would he have made such a botch of the murder in the first place? The state's case against him was strong enough that he was promptly convicted and sentenced to die, and none of his appeals were granted. This despite the fact that he had no motive and that there was compelling evidence that the crime had been videotaped, though a tape had never been recovered. Then again, if he were so smart, why would he have hired such a lousy lawyer? Why, it's almost as if he wanted...but that will have to wait a moment.

Next, liberals don't do that sort of thing, as the character mentioned above asserts, because it is virtually unknown to their worldview. But the only time Gale is shown lecturing, his subject is Lacan--one of the most influential of the post-modern philosophers. Now this is a gross simplification, but post-modernism denies the possibility of objective truth (because knowledge can only be gained and interpreted by individuals biased by their personal and cultural experience), and therefore post-modernism tends toward relativism. Therefore, the rape and murder of an innocent woman can be made equivalent to the "state-sanctioned murder" of the perpetrator by the government because, in the end, both "victims" are equally dead. If The Life of David Gale were meant to be an indictment of the American legal system, Gale might have been shown lecturing John Stuart Mill or some such. Instead, the screenwriter chose to focus on the one that is as fashionably liberal as it is morally questionable.

Finally, the scandalous murder of one gentle, liberal, death penalty by another would be so damaging to the cause that it smacks of Vast Right Wing Conspiracy plotting. The governor speaks the to the abolitionist's weakest argument when he takes out a pen and asks Gale to name one blameless person whom the state killed. Now Gale himself is the innocent on death row.

Except...well, I don't know how handy you are with mysteries, but I'm no great shakes and I had this pup licked by the time I had the information above. For the purposes of drama, however, another character, played by Kate Winslet, is introduced and gets to be the exposition receptacle. As Bitsy (rhymes with "ditsy") Bloom, Winslet's eager beaver reporter accepts David Gale's exclusive offer to hear his life story in three installments in the days before his execution. She is hot, hot, hot off a cover story for which she went to jail rather than reveal the identities of her child pornographer sources, that's how much integrity she has. Her crusty old while male editor smells a rat. Maybe, just maybe, longtime provocateur Gale has an ulterior motive for specifically requesting a pretty and emotional young woman with a reputation for going to lengths to protect the disreputable tell his story.

He backs down when Bitsy and her sassy black woman colleague threaten him with a sex discrimination lawsuit, but sends along a young male intern to keep an eye on things. Oppression! Although he comes equipped with lots of fun facts about Republicans and serial killers, the intern smokes and is a emissary of The Man, and that's plenty of reason for Bitsy to get on her high horse and be thoroughly nasty to him. He passive-aggressively retaliates by failing to exchange their worthless rental car, bound to break down in a crisis.

She also bars him from the conversations with Gale that he was sent along to monitor. This frees Gale to get all weepy and vulnerable without another man around to roll his eyes, elbow Bitsy in the ribs and ask if she's getting a load of this. Movie fans have seen this routine before, in Spacey's Oscar winning turn as Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects. There are those who were shocked, shocked by the end of that movie when they were given reason to suspect that the events shown were extemporaneously invented by Kint. (A fictional narrative in a movie? Well I never.) In Gale, as in Suspects, Spacey's character gives his fictional audiences the story they want to hear. In the latter, the gullible police dug the tale of criminal conspiracies and shadowy masterminds. In the former, an intolerant, self-righteous, lawsuit-threatening harpy is shown a nightmare world of PC doublespeak and utter lack of morality which is the natural extension of her own liberal tendencies.

For example, a slutty young woman, recently expelled from college, seduces Gale then cries rape. Although she drops the charges, and has a reputation for dishonesty and manipulation, Gale's career is obliterated. The board votes to fire him, and his friend Constance confesses that though she voted in his favor it was a betrayal of her politics. She felt deep guilt over her decision, and she thought he was innocent. Gale's adulterous wife leaves him after the scandal, and though he has a stellar record as an academic as well as a clean rap sheet, he cannot find another position.

Sexual politics on college campuses have been a hot button issue for years, with insensitive, knuckle-dragging conservatives coming down firmly on the side of due process precisely because of these sorts of injustices, perpetuated by the kindly liberal academic establishment. But hinky campus politics are just a side note, and crack reporter Bitsy doesn't pursue that story.

Finally, Gale gets work as a clerk in a Radio Shack knock-off--doing a job fit people with only high school diploma is a special humiliation for him. He goes on benders in ethnic neighborhoods, and his alcoholism threatens his work with the anti-death penalty gang. Why a volunteer organization which sympathizes with murderers, whom they admit are guilty, would get so particular about a drinking man isn't convincingly explained. Sure, Gale's behavior is unseemly, but it is not felonious, and the chances for the rehabilitation of an alcoholic are far greater than those of violent criminals. Why the breakdown in tolerance?

Bitsy doesn't follow up on that one, either. Even Gale seems so fixated on selling a conservative conspiracy that he glosses over the many betrayals of his liberal friends. And as bad as they seem already, they only get worse. The creepy cowboy who has been following Bitsy around turns out to have been a confederate of Gale and Harraway's. That a rangy, soft spoken, Texan cowboy who helps ailing, single ladies with their yard work is so obviously a villain is a good indication of where this movie is coming from. Bitsy immediately suspects it is he who broke into her hotel room and left a videotape hanging by a string from the middle of the ceiling. The tape shows Constance's last, agonized moments as she suffocates and dies. She is naked, extensively bruised, has her hands cuffed behind her back, and a plastic bag over her head, taped securely around her neck. It's a nasty bit of film to which Bitsy showily emotes, and Parker finds excuses to show it again and again. Then to have Bitsy recreate it with a bag taped over her head and nearly suffocating (but not nude--this is Winslet in a rare, fully clothed performance). Then to show an extended version that implicates the cowboy in Harraway's death. Then to show another extended version that proves David Gale was also on the scene and schemed with them to assist Constance's suicide, then his own. That was the version Gale sent to Bitsy after his execution. Recorded on a videotape with the words "OFF THE RECORD" scrawled on the spine, it's an f-you from beyond the grave to her journalistic principles and human sensibilities.

That revelation is the movie's final plot twist. Constance, because she had leukemia, figured she didn't have a life worth living and so stripped, taped a bag over her head, and put handcuffs on, knowing she had swallowed the key and unless her friends intervened she would die horribly. Because he lost his nifty professor gig and had to work a low class job, then lost his child to his cheating wife, Gale decided his life wasn't worth living either. They end up equally dead, but Constance's last moments in the presence of her right thinking liberal friends were of abasement and suffering, and they were caught on tape for the future edification/ amusement of strangers. Gale's, at the hands of the government, was too boring for Parker to depict (and executions are not filmed by agents of the state).

The pro-death penalty camp stakes its position in the sanctity of life. That valuation extends to the sick and unfortunate, and underpins their (generally) related opposition to abortion and euthanasia. Human life is too precious to be denied to any but those who have committed gross offences against it. You may or may not be persuaded by that argument, and there is cause to be troubled by an ultimate punishment levied in an imperfect world. But it cannot be refuted by the words and actions of vile characters in a movie that traffics in faux death porn. Gale and Harraway sentenced themselves to death over quality of life issues that even the most enthusiastic death penalty types would have found insufficient, and using abominable means. Harraway's grotesque self-murder, sanctioned and abetted by her friends, is bad enough, but Gale essentially made the unwitting people of Texas the accomplices in his destruction, using the state penal system as his weapon of choice. Then he sold his story to Bitsy's news organization for a million bucks, which strips the last vestiges of principle from his acts and reduces them to an especially complicated and expensive murder for hire (a capital crime, by the way).

The Life of David Gale was conceived by Charles Randolph, who according to the reputable Internet Movie Database is doctor of philosophy and a former philosophy professor. Like the movie's intern, I have to wonder if an apparently smart person didn't have an ulterior motive in perpetrating such an ungainly offense. He worked within the university system: did he mean to decry the corrosive unfairness of politically correct behavior of his colleagues? Did he, like novelist Richard Condon and screenwriter George Axlerod of The Manchurian Candidate, take an incendiary concept as far and in as many directions as possible for artistic effect? Should the audience take David Gale as a parody of modern liberalism? Whatever his intentions, and those of the actors and director, I don't think they have any other choice.

The reason I spent so much time picking on The Life of David Gale, though it was poorly received both by critics and the public at large, is because it makes so many contemporary liberal assumptions then exposes the moral bankruptcy behind them as effectively as if it had been written by the combined staffs of The National Review, The Weekly Standard, and The New Criterion. There's fun to be had in that idea. For instance, "David Gale" is the name of the late actor who played the villain in the legendary splatter flick Re-Animator (which Kevin Spacey's character referred to in American Beauty). That actor also bore an uncanny resemblance to the Democrat presidential front-runner John Kerry (who recently made that infamous "regime change in Washington" crack). Coincidence? Yeah, probably. But the intensity and absurdity of left-leaning artists and art over the past few years has produced especially dismal work. I hope against hope that The Life of David Gale is the nadir, because if the utter failure of such an ambitious, expensive, and high-toned project doesn't prompt a correction, Hollywood is as self-destructive as its title character.

Written by Sharon C. McGovern

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