On the 10th anniversary of the release of The Life of David Gale (SPOILERS FOLLOW), I wanted to revisit an essay I wrote about it when it was released. The film is a fictional story about a man who opposes the death penalty and ends up on death row for the rape and murder of a woman, his best friend, who works for an anti-death penalty organization. At that time many critics deemed David Gale to be a “heavy handed” message movie. Perhaps, but I think it opened a door to talk about the social construction of language and meaning surrounding the death penalty.
The Life of David Gale was directed by British director Alan Parker (Angela's Ashes, Evita, The Commitments). Since then Parker, an English filmmaker whose movies have won nineteen BAFTAs, ten Golden Globes and ten Oscars, has not made another film. I wonder why. David Gale did not do well at the box office, grossing just under $20 million domestically and $19 million worldwide. But films about the death penalty are seldom box office hits though they can win awards: Dead Man Walking, (1995) based on a true story, won a Best Actress Oscar for Susan Sarandon; The Green Mile (1999) a fictional story by Stephen King, was nominated for and won many awards; Conviction, (2010) also based on a true story, received numerous awards. Werner Herzog’s 2011 documentary Into the Abyss about the death penalty in Texas, is one of the most compelling films about the soul wrenching effects of capital punishment on people involved, from guards to executioner, to family, to clergy and beyond.
Since The Life of David Gale was released, five U.S. states abolished the death penalty bringing non-death penalty states to 17. This film may or may not have influenced this change. What is known is that through DNA testing there have been 303 post-conviction exonerations since 1989, 18 of them death row inmates (via The Innocence Project). Alan Parker had some experience with the culture of the American South from his time making Mississippi Burning (1988). Parker told journalists when The Life of David Gale was released that he was not making a movie "pro" or "con" capital punishment in Texas (symbolic of the whole USA). Instead, he wanted to make a film that would prompt people to talk about the subject. I think he reached his goal.
In what turns out to be a tale of "sex, lies and videotape," Dr. David Gale (Kevin Spacey), is a Texas philosophy professor who quotes French psychiatrist Jacques Lacan's theory of fantasy to students: as soon as you get what you want, you don't want it anymore. Gale is a husband and father of a young son whom he adores. He is an anti-death penalty activist and passionate spokesperson for an organization that works to outlaw it.
Gale works with friend and colleague Constance Hallaway (Laura Linney), who is just as persistent but has a better sense for public relations. We are led to believe that David Gale is seduced (most graphically) by a former student, Berlin (Rhona Mitra). She reports this to the police and Gale is arrested for rape. Though the charges are dropped, he drinks, dries out but loses his job anyway. His reputation is in ruins. Except for his devastated colleague, Constance, even the anti-capital punishment lobby doesn't want him any more. When Constance is found dead, David's semen and fingerprints are found on her body and he is arrested, tried, convicted for murder and sentenced to death.
Meanwhile, Gale's wife Sharon (Elizabeth Gast) has left him, taking their son with her. She goes to Spain where she had been having an affair for months, even before the drama began.
We are brought into the story at the same time as New York journalist, Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet). David has carefully selected her to come to Texas precisely four days before his schedule execution for the murder of Constance Hallaway, for three days of interviews, each to last two hours. We are on the clock, and so is Bitsey, who has a reputation for journalistic integrity. The magazine has agreed to pay a tidy sum to David's estate for the interviews. David knows his appeals have run out but he wants Bitsey to find out the truth so his son will know his father was a good man. By this time, we start to sense that someone is controlling events and we don't know whom. Is this a drama with a social conscience, a crime thriller, a road movie or all the above?
Alert film viewers will notice two things right away as the film rolls out. First, the scenes are obviously constructed with great attention to visual parallels. Second, the tragic sounds of Puccini's "Madam Butterfly" play in the background behind incongruous scenes of rural Texas roads and beat up pickup trucks. Those are the only two clues you need to understand the film on a superficial level. The film's construction is deliberate just as is the story that David Gale spins out for Bitsey. Gale's direction from the prison visitors' room serves as an ongoing metaphor for what seems to be an improbable premise for a film. Parker is the master filmmaker who structures each scene and act with deliberate precision. David Gale wants to be a master of construction as well, by proving that innocent people on death row are indeed murdered at the hands of the state. How Gale goes about this is what proves Alan Parker right: the film will give you a lot to talk about as you deconstruct who did what and why.
Let's return a moment to the opening sequence in the college lecture hall because this is where the real key to the film's other dimensions lies. Gale refers to what the Freudian/lingusitic philosopher Jacques Lacan said about (sexual) fantasies, which seems a kind of red herring as far as the film goes. But to even bring Lacan into a discussion about capital punishment is subtly subversive. If you don't know about Lacan (and others like him such as Foucault, Levi-Strauss and so forth) then Gale's words are a passing remark. But if you are familiar with linguistic theory (not as boring as it sounds - honest!), then the script for The Life of David Gale takes on deeper levels of meaning and shows an intelligence that goes beyond ordinary entertainment.
Why so? Because the reference to Lacan makes the film become an invitation to viewers to examine the structures of language, meanings and values that the powers in our nation, such as government, the news media and the Church, use to communicate. Whether we think that capital punishment "makes sense" or not, it behooves us to examine how we reached that conclusion. Thought and language are inextricably entwined with how we live within our culture. As Alan Parker hoped, his film offers us a "space" to examine and "deconstruct" the place of the human person in society, especially in relation to capital punishment, and to question just how "free" we really are.
In addition, Lacan was first of all a Freudian, hence Constance's mention of David's ego, the blatant sexuality in the film, the relationships between men and women, actually mean something more than what they seem. This is another aspect of the structuralist theory that Lacan proposed: language, or visual symbolic systems like television, print, television and movies, often say something other than what they say. This sounds like a paradox, but by the end of The Life of David Gale, you'll know what this means. All media are "constructions," including this movie.
Lacan, as a "structuralist," explored the idea that there is a universal order of things into which the "subject", or the human person, is sucked without the ability to choose. Language, for example, has the capacity to socialize us, to communicate the values of those with the loudest voices - and values are the principles that guide us individually and as a society. The characters make terrible, irreversible choices in The Life of David Gale. One wonders if these choices are made freely, and if not, then why?
Now for the "sex, lies and videotape." During the days of Bitsey's interviews and search for "the truth", lies are told and unraveled, and the truth is finally revealed by a videotape after Gale's execution. He is innocent of killing Constance, who actually took her own life soon after she was diagnosed with cancer. But it was a set-up from beginning to end. The story was true, but it was also false. (The way the filmmaker constructs the story and David Gale constructs the dilemma seems like a sidebar commentary on how the media construct the reality of the news; and we are left to "deconstruct" the whole thing in the "space" Parker has constructed for us.)
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 2266-2267), David and Constance were right about capital punishment for "Today the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if practically non-existent," but they were objectively wrong about suicide (n. 2280-2281.) Add to that the fact that in recent years, more than 300 prisoners convicted for serious crimes in the United States have exonerated because DNA testing, as I noted above, proved they were innocent in the first place. The burden of moral and ethical responsibility on citizens and people of faith is indeed a heavy one.
David and Constance were trying to prove that what the powerful say is true and right is actually wrong. The question posed for people who live in discernment and pay attention to the needs of the human family might be: if David and Constance did not act ethically, how will their actions be interpreted by history - or the audience? Did they act out of some kind of moral desperation? How did their plan make "sense" to them and to those who acted with them, such as Constance's boyfriend Zack (Gabriel Mann) and the lawyer? Who determines what is "ethical" and what do circumstances and context have to do with what is considered ethical, moral and/or legal? What other recourse did David and Constance have? What choices do we have in the face of a logic and rhetoric that sound "right" but may not hold up under the scrutiny of people willing to ask difficult, unpopular and uncomfortable questions? How do moral people act responsibly in the face of gross injustice?
So, was it moral and good for David and Constance to concoct their own "martyrdom" to prove a point? When the truth came out, did it make any difference? What is the value of a human life, each and every human life? Who determines the value of a life?
David Gale, Constance and Zack seem to be zealots or extremists. They are dedicated to a "cause," and it is a worthy one because innocent people have been and are being put to death in Texas and can be in 32 other states and 58 countries worldwide according to Amnesty International. But ethics (moral philosophy) teaches that the means the film’s characters chose were just as deadly and immoral as the injustice they were trying to right. However, what power did they have, if we follow through on Lacan's structuralism, to change a system that is so entrenched in its own thought and language as to render these characters otherwise ineffectual? So, what is the value of a human life? Does being master of your own death make the individual any different from that of the state when it comes to wielding death?
Alan Parker has not only created a "space" for dialogue about the death penalty, but suicide, the rationale and role of the state in determining who lives and dies, the reality of complex moral dilemmas that may not exist today but may in the future, and ultimately the value of all human life, without distinction. The film is well-written (by Charles Randolph) and crafted, though very difficult to watch and at times it seems to stretch credibility. Perhaps the film tries too hard to get us to think. This is no feel-good movie, but then again, neither are capital punishment, murder or suicide (or euthanasia or abortion, though these are not mentioned) comfortable topics. The Life of David Gale will earn a place in the genre that deals with life issues, though it remains to be seen how seriously the intentional audience that might watch this on DVD, television or streaming video, will take it’s convoluted plot. It's almost too smart for its own good.
If nothing else, we can say that the tragedy of the deaths of David and Constance in The Life of David Gale witnessed to the consistent, relentless reality of America's love affair with violence and death as a way to resolve problems - whether by hand gun (see Michael Moore's Oscar-nominated documentary Bowling for Columbine), capital punishment (see Tim Robbins' Dead Man Walking) and war (see any of the films about war that came out following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and check out the nightly news.)
The final question in the 7th edition of Nina Rosenstand’s exceptional textbook “The Moral of the Story: An Introduction to Ethics” (2013; McGraw Hill, New York) refers to my essay and the reference to Lacan: “Is Pacatte right? Is the film an invitation for us to reexamine our thoughts and language about who we are as persons?”
Yes. But then, all movies are.
Rose Pacatte, FSP, is the Director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles and is an award-wining co-author of Lights, Camera, Faith series published by Pauline Books & Media, and film critic for St. Anthony Messenger and film contributor to the National Catholic Reporter. Rose was a member of the ecumenical jury at the Berlin Film Festival in 2003 where The Life of David Gale was in competition. It was nominated for a Berlin Golden Bear Award.