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Professor David Gale (Kevin Spacey) is convicted of rape and murder and sits on death row in Texas. He offers an extensive and exclusive interview in the three days prior to his execution to journalist Bitsy Bloom (Kate Winslet), promising to reveal all. Gale and Constance Hallaway (Laura Linney) have been important players in the campaign against the death penalty for some time, and now, the divorced Gale is trying to rescue his once glorious reputation for the sake of his young son. But is that his only motive?

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
He’s at it again. In his 1988 film Mississippi Burning, English filmmaker Alan Parker rubbed their noses into American’s notorious civil rights murders of 1964. This time, he’s rubbing their noses into the selective morality of the death penalty. In 1988 he used the facts of the case; this time it’s a fictional crime thriller but the impact is nearly as great. Nearly because facts are stranger and more powerful than fiction. 

But The Life of David Gale is welcome for its mainstream appeal, some of whom, even if only a few, are certain to be given pause for thought about the death penalty; legal murder or the sword of justice? My greatest reservation about the script (other than being slightly laboured and carrying too much incidental baggage) is that its stance against the death penalty is not articulated with the strongest argument possible: namely that if you accept that there is sometimes justification for the killing of a person, even if by the State, you cannot argue for the sanctity of life. That’s the selective morality of the death penalty. The film focuses on the dangers of the State killing an innocent person. 

That aside, the story makes for a dramatic and compelling film, and elicits terrific performances. We know Kevin Spacey will win our sympathy with a deeply felt performance as the condemned man, and Laura Linney is again outstanding; her Constance is a woman whose life is devoted to the cause. Kate Winslet is commanding as the catalyst, a journalist who is our point of view into the story and the recipient of the ‘exclusive interview’ with the condemned man. The structure of the film – flashbacks – is enhanced by Parker’s decision to give us an intriguing, mysterious opening sequence that comes back to tantalise us as the plot is developed. His craft is assured, and he adds stylistic flourishes to take us deeper into the mindset of his protagonists. Solid scripting (with one minor internal inconsistency) and clear characterisations make this (slightly overlong) drama a powerful statement. Parker has something to say, and by golly, we’ll listen.

The DVD – with simple, efficient and creative navigation worth a mention - offers several opportunities to look deeper into the film’s core subject matter – the death penalty. The 9-minute Death in Texas piece, for example, is a sober doco in which we learn about the dedication and fervour with which the State of Texas applies its death penalty, and includes grabs with Alan Parker, writer Charles Randolph as well as prison officials.

The deleted scenes are of marginal interest, partly because the (optional) comments by Parker makes clear he has final cut and the finished film is how he intended it. He even expresses his reservations about including these. They’re worth a look, though.

The 17-minute Making Of feature, driven no doubt by Parker’s down to earthiness, avoids being too much of a cosy, self congratulatory exercise in promoting the film. Instead, we are actually treated as intelligent people who may be interested in the subject, the filmmakers’ motives and the serious issues that everyone had to confront. 

The 5-minute Music feature is made especially interesting by the fact Parker chose his two sons to write the original music, because their style fits the film. Of course, this is not simple favouritsm; Parker is a director who has always treated music as vital and has worked with a variety of composers ranging from John Williams to Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Then there is Parker’s commentary: I’ve always admired this filmmaker’s intelligence and low-key personal style. He approaches this with the intention of putting things into context for us. He’s been recorded in the intimate style of close microphone, which I really enjoy for this work, as it enhances the feeling that the director is sitting with us while watching the film, and he’s speaking quietly over the film’s soundtrack. He also allows his dry humour to occasionally peep through. 

This DVD is a satisfying product in every sense, its extra features matching the film’s integrity.

Published October 9, 2003

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CAST: Kevin Spacey, Kate Winslet, Laura Linney, Gabriel Mann, Matt Craven

DIRECTOR: Alan Parker

SCRIPT: Charles Randolph

RUNNING TIME: 125 minutes

PRESENTATION: widescreen; DD 5.1

SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary by director Alan Parker; deleted scenes; The Making of …; The Music of …; Death in Texas


DVD RELEASE: October 8, 2003

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