The Life of David Gale (2003)

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Released 7-Oct-2003

Cover Art

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Drama Main Menu Audio
Audio Commentary-Alan Parker (Director)
Featurette-Death In Texas
Featurette-Making Of
Featurette-The Music Of David Gale
Deleted Scenes-3, with optional commentary
Gallery-Poster Concepts
Teaser Trailer
Trailer-US Trailer
DVD-ROM Extras
Rating Rated MA
Year Of Production 2003
Running Time 124:57
RSDL / Flipper RSDL (75:30) Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 2,4 Directed By Alan Parker
Studio
Distributor

Universal Pictures Home Video
Starring Kevin Spacey
Kate Winslet
Laura Linney
Gabriel Mann
Case ?
RPI $39.95 Music Jake Parker
Alex Parker


Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 5.1 (384Kb/s)
English Audio Commentary Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 2.35:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 2.35:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English for the Hearing Impaired
English Audio Commentary
Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

I used to be the state's leading death penalty abolitionist - now I'm on Death Row...
doesn't that strike you as a little odd?

    So asks David Gale (Kevin Spacey) of journalist Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet) in this thriller by director Alan Parker. Parker is perhaps best known for his 1991 sleeper hit The Commitments or his superb 1978 offering about an American trapped inside a Turkish prison in Midnight Express. He may be British, yet he manages to often make films that are anything but the archetypal British production. This time round he deals with a topic that is anything but British and basically foreign to most of the western world - the emotional issue of the death penalty.

    The Life Of David Gale is a story told in two parts. The present day is captured in the days just prior to Gale facing the executioner. Bloom and her sidekick, intern Zack Stemmons (Gabriel Mann), have been summoned to Death Row in Texas by Gale's lawyer. For the sum of $500,000, he guarantees Bloom's magazine will get an exclusive interview with this most famous of Death Row inmates, just three days before his scheduled execution. As Gale begins to re-tell his tale to Bloom of just how he came to be guilty of rape and murder of fellow death penalty campaigner Constance Harraway (Laura Linney), the story flashes back several years to when Gale was still a professor and an active death penalty abolitionist.

    David Gale was the head of philosophy at a major Texas university and a well respected member of the community. He was also one of the leading forces behind an anti-death penalty lobby group called DeathWatch. With fellow campaigner Constance Harraway, they led a crusade against the state of Texas, which is one of the 38 states of the US that still practice what DeathWatch sees as the most barbaric of punishments. Gale is educated, urbane and passionate in his role as a death penalty abolitionist. But something goes wrong when, always fond of a little booze, he gets intoxicated at a party and is seduced by a student who has been recently expelled. This student made an earlier pass at Gale in class, which he rebuked, but in a moment of alcohol-induced madness, Gale accepts the student's affections. Things fall apart when she complains of non-consenting intercourse the next day, and Gale is arrested. The student then does a runner to Europe without pressing any further charges. Gale is cleared, but the smear remains. He is sacked from his job and cannot gain credible employment anywhere. His role within DeathWatch is also being questioned. He hits the bottle and his alcoholism further fuels his social decline, culminating with him being charged and subsequently found guilty of murdering Harraway.

    Initially sceptical of Gale and his protestations of innocence, Bloom begins to rethink her earlier opinions as she delves deeper and deeper into this sad tale of how Gale came to be found guilty of murdering his close friend. Gale is convinced he was set up, and despite being found guilty by three different courts, he has never given up. His last chance at a stay of execution is for Bloom to uncover some new evidence which Gale is sure exists. Bloom can't resist the lure of a good story or the chance to use her ferocious investigative skills, and immediately starts trying to unravel the puzzle. If Gale didn't do it, she asks, who did, and why?

    What follows is a drama/thriller with a twist at the conclusion that many will find unsettling, if even perhaps a little distasteful. With a story about a topic so politically divisive and emotional like the death penalty, it is difficult for sides not to be taken. The film does take the anti-death penalty side, though to the producer's credit it is hardly beaten over your head like a sermon. The film also has some flaws, most notably the portrayal of the totally pointless aggressor or bad guy. Need to make someone in Texas appear as a bad guy? Easy, just give them a large cowboy hat, have them drive around erratically in a Chevy pick-up, and give them no lines of dialogue at all. A clichéd effort at its worst and I'm sure the scriptwriter could have come up with something a little more compelling for a film that doesn't even really need it. The ending also seemed a little pointless and unworthy of a script that had done its best for two hours to present a relatively even-handed approach to the emotive topic. Renowned critic Roger Ebert hated this film so much (and was particularly scathing of the ending) that he awarded it zero stars in his newspaper review earlier this year, describing it as "corrupt, intellectually bankrupt and morally dishonest".

    Another reason Ebert hated this film was where it was set, but I thought that was its greatest strength. Virtually all of the exterior scenes were filmed around the many prisons in East Texas. Having the film set in Texas is vitally important to the whole crux of the plot as this state is responsible for more than half the executions carried out in the US each year. At the time of writing this review, there were 449 offenders on death row in Texas, with 310 executed since the death penalty was re-introduced in 1976. 21 people have been executed this year to date.

    I think the best advice to give someone when sitting down to watch this film is to borrow a comment from director Alan Parker's commentary. First and foremost he says, this is a thriller. Even though the film exists in a strong political context, if you treat it like a thriller you should enjoy even the slightly unsettling ending, and perhaps even use it to spark some debate in your household.

    Some of the above facts have come from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Death Row webpage. This is a truly fascinating, yet morbid set of facts, figures, and sad stories about all the offenders that have been held on death row since 1923.

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Transfer Quality

Video

    Truth be told, I was a little disappointed with the video transfer afforded to this title. For such a new film, it has some faults and doesn't offer the impressive eye-popping look that we are so accustomed to for new releases.

    The original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 is presented here, complete with 16x9 enhancement.

    Sharpness is adequate. At times it is excellent, while at other times it tends a little to the soft side. Interestingly, some Region 1 reviews mention excessive edge enhancement afflicting the transfer. I really didn't notice anything on this Region 4 release other than a small amount on some of the interior scenes that were poorly lit - and it certainly isn't overly annoying. Grain is a bigger issue. The opening scenes where Kate Winslet is running down the road are burdened with some of the most obvious grain I have seen in recent times. This lasts for more than a minute. Shadow detail is handled very well, and given the number of dark and murky scenes, this is a blessing. There is no low level noise.

    Colours are quite muted. There are few instances of high vibrancy or saturation. This is a morbid tale of death and murder after all, so the colour palette suits the on-screen action well. I noticed no problems with oversaturation or colour bleed.

    There are no obvious compression artefacts, but I wish I could say the same for film-to-video artefacts, particularly aliasing, which pops up frequently. The most notable examples occur at 2:06 on a car grille, and at 4:23 on the text on a poster on a wall (the first time I have seen aliasing affect something so small). There is also a rather noticeable moiré effect at 2:48-2:50 when Kevin Spacey's character is appearing on a television broadcast. Film artefacts are mostly absent, which is expected given the youth of the material.

    English for the Hearing Impaired subtitles are the only flavour offered for the main film, with the other stream for the commentary. I sampled them for the entire duration when listening the commentary track and found them to be highly accurate.

    This is a dual layered disc with the layer change occurring at 75:30, where it is barely noticeable. Great placement.

Video Ratings Summary
Sharpness
Shadow Detail
Colour
Grain/Pixelization
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts
Overall

Audio

    There are two audio soundtracks on this disc; a Dolby Digital 5.1 track in English and a Dolby Digital 2.0 commentary track. I listened to both.

    While certainly not a demonstration track, this is still clean and powerful, offering all the right directions for effects and anchoring the dialogue firmly into the centre channel. There is only a little use of the surrounds and only minimal subwoofer use when required.

    Dialogue is excellent, which given the nature of this film,  is quite important. There are no problems with audio sync.

    The score is credited to the director's sons, Alex and Jake Parker and offers a mix of mood and excitement. An interesting score that has elements of so many different genres thrown into the mix. Unique is probably the best way to describe it. It is certainly like nothing else I have ever heard.

    As mentioned above, there is minimal surround use, though during the various scene transition sequences which cleverly indicate when the story is flashing back several years from the current day, the surround channel use is constant and quite eerie. The subwoofer is called on a couple of times, but is very restrained and is barely noticed in the overall mix.

Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

Main Menu Audio

Audio Commentary - Alan Parker (Director)

    Despite an incredibly monotone delivery and what is actually quite a difficult voice to listen to for any extended period, director Alan Parker shares a wealth of material in this screen-specific commentary. He offers some technical details in relation to certain shots and locations, talks about the script, the cast, and has plenty to say about the death penalty itself. Worthy of a listen if you can handle his droning delivery.

Featurette - Death In Texas

    Texas has executed 310 people since the death penalty was re-instituted in 1976. In that same time, California, which actually has a larger death-row population, has executed just 10. A staggering comparison, and in this all-too-short 9:09 minute featurette we get some feeling for why this might be the case. This featurette could have been a whole lot longer and would have made for fascinating viewing. It contains interviews with the director and cast and some of the real-life people that work in the prison system in Texas.

Featurette-Making Of

    Running for 16:56 this is pretty much your stock-standard making-of fluffy promotional piece. The usual chestnuts about what drew the actors to the material and why they love working with each other is pretty much all that is covered.

Featurette  - The Music Of

    Running for 4:50 minutes, this brief featurette looks at the score composed by Alan Parker's two sons, Jake and Alex Parker. One of the sons is classically trained, while the other is more of a rock style musician. As a result, the score blends elements of both and offers a wide variety of styles in its mood and delivery.

Deleted Scenes

    Three deleted scenes, all available with optional commentary from director Alan Parker. Running times are 0:55, 1:00, and 0:47. None are particularly compelling additions to the plot, though the first one is quite amusing. Parker explains fully the reasons for their removal.

Gallery

    Three poster concepts for promotional use. All are variations on the main cover of the disc.

Teaser Trailer

    A 1:16 minute trailer that is more of a music video than a conventional trailer. There's no dialogue in this one, just images and a soulful song playing over the top of it. As a result, it gives away basically nothing in the plot.

Trailer

    The 2:20 minute US theatrical trailer. Features the same soundtrack as the teaser trailer, but has dialogue scenes which flesh out the plot much more. Still doesn't give away any of the key plot twists, though.

DVD-ROM Extras

    Slip the disc in your DVD-ROM drive and you'll get the usual links through to the Universal website, but there is also another interesting little piece worth a look. Director Alan Parker has penned a 2,600 word essay on the political arguments for and against the death penalty. It makes for interesting and thought-provoking reading.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    The Region 1 disc is identical to this one, but as mentioned in the video section, several Region 1 reviews indicate a high level of edge enhancement hampers the picture. With the Region 4 title not being affected by this handicap (at least not to any great extent), I would certainly have to favour the local product.

Summary

    While The Life Of David Gale is a drama/thriller first and foremost, it is difficult to watch this film and not be swayed by the arguments either for or against the death penalty. It is a contentious and emotional issue and one that is certainly not going to be solved by two hours of Hollywood entertainment, so try and watch without letting those arguments get in the way. I think you will appreciate it a bit more as a result, because as a film with a political message it suffers from a little credibility at times, with the closing scenes completely undoing any good work done in the preceding two hours.

    The video is only just above average. I have seen plenty of transfers better than this of late, but likewise I have also seen plenty worse. Some excessive grain and aliasing are the biggest problems.

    The audio is excellent, with clear separation across all channels.

    The extras are comprehensive, though a little more depth in the Death in Texas featurette certainly wouldn't have gone astray. Make sure you read the article by Alan Parker about the political arguments for and against the death penalty included in the ROM content.

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Darren Walters (It's . . . just the vibe . . . of my bio)
Sunday, October 19, 2003
Review Equipment
DVDLoewe Xemix 5106DO, using RGB output
DisplayLoewe Calida (84cm). Calibrated with Video Essentials. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Video Essentials.
AmplificationHarmon/Kardon AVR7000.
SpeakersFront - B&W 602S2, Centre - B&W CC6S2, Rear - B&W 601S2, Sub - Energy E:xl S10

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