Good movies should make you think. They should stretch your horizons. Make you grapple with weighty issues. Cause you to laugh and cry. Prod you with humanness, passion and spirituality. That’s what good movies should do. Give The Life of David Gale credit for trying to put all those pieces together. But don’t be fooled into thinking it actually succeeds. Part snuff film, part murder mystery, part suspenseful thriller, part political treatise, David Gale tantalizes intelligent audiences with the implication that it will inspire myriad discussions about the pros and cons of capital punishment, then flogs them with barbarism, lust, and graphic and gratuitous images of death and sex.
Professor David Gale used to be a spokesman for the anti-death penalty advocacy group DeathWatch. Now he is on Texas’ death row for the rape and torturous murder of his colleague and friend, Constance Harraway. Barely a week before his scheduled execution, he summons journalist Elizabeth “Bitsy” Bloom, promising her a series of exclusive interviews during which he will tell his tale. He maintains his innocence, begging her to dig for the truth before it’s too late.
positive elements: David adores his young son and is heartbroken when his wife leaves him, taking the boy with her. Don’t spend too much time pitying David, though. It’s his actions that cause her departure. An equally positive theme in the film is the reality that our behavior shapes our existence. David’s wife divorces him because he has sex with one of his young graduate students at a party. The coed later accuses David of rape, thereby revealing his indiscretion to his wife and to the world. She drops the charges, but he still loses his family, his career, his sobriety, his self-respect and even his will to live because of his misdeeds and her venom. One moment of heat and desire eclipses an entire life.
Elsewhere, David instructs his college class, “The only way we can measure the significance of our own lives is by valuing those of others.” When David turns to alcohol after his life falls into ruin, a friend gives him good advice: “You want to see [your son] again, then you get your life together, pronto.”
spiritual content: Activists on both sides of the death penalty debate use Scripture to support their views. It’s stated that the only thing we know about death is that nobody ever comes back. Arriving in Texas, Bitsy says mockingly, “You know you’re in the Bible Belt when there are more churches than Starbucks.” David rambles on about why Jude is the patron saint of lost causes. In a drunken stupor he babbles about the 30 pieces of silver Judas was paid for betraying Christ (he emphasizes the fact that Judas kisses the Lord).
nudity and sexual content: Dialogue includes explicit sexual references, jokes and innuendoes. David’s extramarital party fling is graphically depicted (suffice it to say that it includes partial nudity, multiple sexual positions and physical roughness). Later, a more “genteel” encounter with Constance is shown complete with mood lighting that conceals only some of the bare skin. Constance expresses regret that she’s only had four lovers in her life. Sadly, this is exactly the kind of sexual content has come to be tolerated, even expected in R-rated movies. What actually exceeds the already loose limits usually applied to R films is the repeated viewing of a videotape that documents Constance’s death. It is so visually abusive that I refuse to notate its details here. All I’m willing to relay is that on it a naked woman suffocates to death. Portions of it are displayed over and over and over again throughout the film.
violent content: Footage from the videotape should also be noted for its violence. As part of her investigation, Bitsy reenacts Constance’s last moments. She leaves her clothes on in doing so, but the awfulness of the violence must be witnessed yet again. Drunk and enraged, David pummels a payphone with the receiver, then rips the entire unit out of the booth. In an opera seen onscreen, a woman “kills” herself by thrusting a sword into her chest.
crude or profane language: Thirteen f-words. Ten s-words. Jesus’ name is abused three times. God’s name is combined with “d–n” seven times. Bitsy makes an obscene gesture.
drug and alcohol content: David becomes a staggering drunk after losing his wife and job. He attempts to clean himself up by attending AA meetings, but faced with further setbacks, he takes up the bottle again. Several scenes show him intoxicated, stumbling over himself, ranting at passersby and muttering under his breath. Others drink at parties. Bitsy’s intern, Zack, smokes cigarettes, but Bitsy despises his habit, even going so far as to banish him out-of-doors (in the rain) when he wants to light up.
other negative elements: The belief in absolute truth is ridiculed (“There is no truth; only perspectives”). The subject of euthanasia is given lopsided attention. Zack takes a political jab at Republicans by stating that “73 percent of serial killers vote Republican.” David rails against a noted spokesperson for conservative values, saying, “If you want boring, read William Bennett’s Book of Virtues. I’m still asleep.” There is a crude conversation about circumcision.
conclusion: Portions of The Life of David Gale are consumed with anti-death penalty propaganda. Texas corrections officers are subtly mocked. The state governor is depicted as small-minded and manipulative. And Constance preaches a pretty mean sermon about saving the lives of the condemned. “When you kill someone, you rob their family. Not just of a loved one, but of their humanity,” she says. “You harden their hearts with hate, you take away their capacity for civilized dispassion, you condemn them to blood lust. It’s a cruel, horrible thing. But indulging that hate will never help. The damage is done and once we’ve had our pound of flesh we’re still hungry. We leave the Death House muttering that lethal injection was just too good for them. In the end, a civilized society must live with a hard truth: He who seeks revenge digs two graves.”
Director Alan Parker and others involved with the film agree with her sentiment. “Personally I am very much against the death penalty for several reasons,” wrote Parker. “Nevertheless, our film is not a political diatribe. It is a story about people who would go to great extremes because of their beliefs, and to that end the film is biased on their behalf.” David Gale is biased, but not so much as I suspected walking into the theater. I came out struck more by the film’s condemnation of imprudent activism than its stand on any particular political position. Had the subject of the film been abortion and had it assigned the actions of these characters to pro-life advocates, it would have been roundly accused of bashing, not supporting those opposed to the killing of the unborn.
Alas, such speculations, interpretations and ruminations are grossly beside the point. Parker insists that David Gale is first and foremost a thriller. “It would be hypocritical to pretend otherwise,” he says, “cognizant as we all are of the commercial demands of the contemporary movie business.” It would seem those “commercial demands” call for extraordinary content these days. Content that involves bondage fantasies, graphic sex, and bizarre, explicit—and repeated—depictions of death. Talk about capital punishment all you want, just don’t use The Life of David Gale to inspire the discussion.