Oasis in the Texan Desert

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Review of 'The Life of David Gale', director Alan Parker

Since 1976, when the death penalty was reintroduced in the United States, Texas has led the way in the administration of legalised murder: 299 executions have taken place in the last 27 years and George W Bush presided over 152 of them as governor.

'The Life of David Gale' is a film about the death penalty and is set in a university campus, that of Austin, Texas, and is about the terrible situation of its leading philosopher, Professor David Gale, played in his usual understated style by Kevin Spacey. It was written by a real-life professor of philosophy, Charles Randolph, and directed by Alan Parker, previously best known for 'The Commitments' and 'Evita'.

Popular, successful and respected, Gate can mesmerise a crowded lecture theatre with a moving description of French Jacques Lacan's ethical principles and later demolish the vile state governor in a televised debate on the death penalty. Austin University is shown as a liberal oasis in the Texan desert, with Gale a the leading light of Deathwatch, a small, dedicated group of abolitionists operating from a ramshackle office.

We first meet Gale, however, when he is interviewed by reporter Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet) on death row. He has been found guilty of the rape and murder of his fellow academic and Deathwatch campaigner, Constance Carraway (Laura Linney). The drama of the film hinges on the question of his guilt or innocence as he recounts his life story to Bloom. We discover his alcoholism, his egocentricity, his collapsing marriage. The plot is deftly handled and a few dramatic twists ensure the tension does not let up.

Carefully wound into this narrative are a number of issues. Perhaps surprisingly, the status of the death penalty itself--whether just or unjust--is not explicitly questioned. Instead, the film focuses more on the nature of political commitment and political involvement. Where it suffers problems is in its portrayal of an exclusively white world of well-meaning activists, divorced from reality through their abstract attachments to high ideals. This seems to be missing out on what drives people to any sort of political position, which isn't simply virtuous appeals to noble causes--the civil rights and black liberation movements grew out of the actual suffering of blacks in the US. Separated from society in a campus bubble, it can sometimes be hard to feel much sympathy for the Deathwatch activists and their austere commitments. The shocking final frames make clear just how austere that can be. For all that, 'The Life of David Gale' is a fast-paced and thought-provoking film.