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Film / The Life of David Gale

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The Life of David Gale is a 2003 thriller film directed by Alan Parker, starring Kevin Spacey, Kate Winslet, and Laura Linney.

David Gale (Spacey) is a Texas death row inmate, former philosophy professor and anti-death penalty activist. Bitsey Bloom (Winslet) is the reporter he requests to conduct an interview in the last week of his life, before his execution for the rape and murder of his friend, colleague, and fellow activist Constance Harraway (Linney). About half of the film is a flashback as Gale describes the events leading up to his conviction, starting with a rape accusation by one of his students (Rhona Mitra), and claims his innocence. With the help of her intern Zack (Gabriel Mann), Bloom must figure out what really happened and whether Gale can—and should—be saved.

The Tropes of David Gale:

  • Absence of Evidence: David notes that the absence of fingerprints on the tripod cannot be a coincidence.
  • Acquitted Too Late: Gale's allies are trying to prevent this. At least, Bitsey Bloom is, but fails. His real plan is to cause this to happen as a political act to discourage the death penalty.
  • All for Nothing: The governor had promised that if evidence of an innocent person executed ever surfaced he'd call a moratorium on capital punishment. Gale's death is set up as exactly this. However, the governor refuses to call a moratorium, saying the state can't be blamed for a plot by someone else.
  • Artistic License – History: During a drunken ramble, David says Socrates was sentenced to death for insulting the judges by, after he was convicted, suggesting as his punishment a fine of only thirty mina, comparing that to thirty bucks. In reality though, Apology of Socrates says he suggested a fine of a hundred drachma, soon raised to three thousand-a very substantial sum. Being a philosophy professor, David likely would be aware of this.
  • Chalk Outline: The kitchen still has the outlines on the floor for crime scene tourists. Turns out they are not exactly where the actual body lied.
  • Clear Their Name: David Gale's intention with the interview. Subverted in the end; his and his compatriots' actual plan is for Bloom to fail to clear his name until after his execution.
  • Death Row: David Gale is in it for murder, and he considers it ironic that a man who spent his life fighting the death sentence is going to be executed. This is because he planned it.
  • Death Seeker: David is actually looking forward to being executed. It also backfires against him: his grand political statement against the death penalty is ruined by the Governor pointing out that it was an elaborate suicide and thus not falling under the purview of his moratorium proposal.
  • Downer Ending: Bloom is unable to prevent Gale's execution and Gale's plan to use his own death and late acquittal to force the Governor to put a moratory on the death sentence comes to nothing when the Governor, rightfully pointing out the absurdity of Gale's scheme, refuses.
  • Drop Dead Gorgeous: Constance is shown nude when Bitsey views the footage of her death. Also invoked in-universe as part of Nico's crime scene tours: Nico sells videotapes of herself re-enacting Constance's death and offers two different versions, the more expensive video being the one "with tits."
  • Empathic Environment: It rains heavily when Bitsey watches the footage for the first time.
  • "Eureka!" Moment: The tossed-away towel at the motel reminds Bitsey of something about the hand gloves at the crime scene.
  • False Rape Accusation: One of the reasons David loses his job as a college professor. A female student who was failing his course for not showing up for classes later meets him at a party, seduces him, and makes it look like he raped her so she can file rape charges against him. She doesn't even follow up on them since she has already left town before it can go to trial, she just wanted to tarnish his reputation. It also makes him more plausible as a rapist and murderer later than otherwise he might be.
  • Fan Disservice: Laura Linney has an extended nude scene. In which, as part of the whole plan to make her suicide look like murder, she undresses completely, ties a bag over her head, cuffs her wrists behind her back and duly suffocates to death. Her character's suffering from cancer at the time too, so her body is covered with unsightly red blotches.
  • Hospital Gurney Scene: Constance being rolled into the hospital in a gurney after David finds her collapsed in the corridor.
  • How We Got Here: The first scene of Bitsey's Big Heroic Run is chronologically one of the last scenes of the movie. We then cut back a few days to see how she got there.
  • Incredibly Obvious Tail: Zack and Bitsey comment how obvious the cowboy is tailing them. It was part of his plan.
  • Intrepid Reporter: Bitsey does more than the usual journalist to solve the case.
  • The Joy of X: The title uses "The Life of [Character Name]" variant.
  • Karma Houdini: All of the people involved in Gale's/Constance's plot. They'd probably all claim I Did What I Had to Do, but it comes off more as Principles Zealot.
  • Last-Minute Reprieve: Heart-wrenchingly subverted when Bitsey arrives too late with the videotape.
  • My Girl Is Not a Slut: Constance regrets having only slept with four men in her time as she tried hard not to be seen as a sex object.
  • Off the Record: Gale makes some comments during his interview that Bloom promises are off the record. Later, the final tape explaining the complete scheme to her is marked this way, implying that the knowledge may never reach the public.
  • Onscreen Chapter Titles: Each of the four days is announced with an on-screen caption.
  • Percussive Therapy: David destroys a public phone in a rage after the call to his son ended unexpectedly.
  • Pity Sex: Played with. When Constance reveals she's dying of leukemia, David asks if she has any regrets. She tells him she would have had more sex. When he asks how many partners she's had, she thinks, then holds up four fingers. He asks if she wants to "complete the hand." Her response is an incredulous "A pity lay?" He then tells her it wouldn't be pity. Not quite Sex for Solace, either. David seems to genuinely care for Constance, although she doesn't seem to be all that attracted to him. Perhaps the pity is on her part, as he's just been divorced and fired.
  • Please, I Will Do Anything!: Subverted. David's student Berlin claims she would do anything to pass. Turns out she was just fooling with him.
  • Prisoner's Last Meal: When David Gale is asked what he would want for his last meal while on death row, he chooses pancakes with strawberries, whipped cream, and chocolate shavings, after he recalls an occasion when his son had wanted the same meal.
  • Race Against the Clock: Bitsey has 24 hours to solve the case and save David from being executed after he gave her some final clues on the third day of their conversation.
  • The Reveal: The first videotape reveals that the murder was actually a suicide with the cowboy assisting Constance. The second videotape reveals that even David was in on the coup.
  • Senseless Sacrifice: To eliminate the death penalty, Gale elaborately set himself up to be blamed for Constance's death, with his innocence being revealed after he's dead. Once the scheme is revealed, the governor refuses to call a moratorium about the death penalty due to Gale manipulating and abusing the system, meaning that he allowed himself to be executed for nothing.
  • Separate Scene Storytelling: David's backstory is told in flashbacks which take up half the movie.
  • Smuggling with Dolls: The last scene is of Bitsey getting Cloud Dog mailed to her with a full videotape hidden inside.
  • Suicide, Not Murder: Linney's character, terminally ill, kills herself while making it look like murder as a part of the plan.
  • Sympathetic Adulterer: David. He mentions that it's an open secret that his wife is having an affair in Spain. This fact plus the alcohol involved makes him still feel like a good guy after the incident with Berlin.
  • Thanatos Gambit: Gale frames himself for a grisly murder so that he will be put to death while "innocent" and expose the flaws in the system.
  • Train Escape: During a Car Chase, the cowboy escapes Zack when a train cuts the latter off.
  • Trauma Swing: One scene has down-on-his-luck David sitting on the swing of his sold home.
  • Tropical Epilogue: The epilogue shows the cowboy finishing up business in Spain.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: What Gale and those involved in the plot ultimately are. While their goal is possibly a noble one, the methods they use to attempt to achieve it slide well over into Villain Protagonist with their horrifically abusive manipulation of the justice system and their intentional involvement of innocent bystanders to be complicit in their scheme.
  • We Need a Distraction: Bitsey has Zack lure the cowboy away from his home so she could sneak in and look for the compromising videotape.
  • You Know Who Said That?: The film invokes Godwin's Law with this. The film revolves around a philosophy professor and political activist who is firmly against capital punishment. During a televised debate, he baits his opponent like this:
    David Gale: So, what you're essentially saying, what you feel is, and this is to choose another quote, that 'a healthy society must stop at nothing to cleanse itself of evil'?
    Governor Hardin: Uh, yes. I'd have to agree. Did I say that too?
    David Gale: Oh no, sir. That was Hitler.