This post is by Michael O’Neil, a friend of mine who teaches at Vose Seminary in Perth, Australia. Michael, a theologian, offers some reflections on a move, The Life of David Gale.
A few days ago my wife and I watched Alan Parker’s 2003 movie The Life of David Gale. It’s what we call a ‘gritty film:’ the kind of movie that is emotionally wrenching or confronting because of its subject matter, or its treatment of the subject matter, often both. It’s the kind of movie that raises harsh questions and/or confronts us with brutal visions of reality. Sometimes we like the movie—even when we feel like we’ve been run over by a truck (think Revolutionary Road or maybe Children of Men), sometimes we hate it (think Precious, though maybe we just wanted something light-hearted or inspirational that night), and sometimes, like now, I’m ambivalent.
The Life of David Gale raises a big issue: the death penalty. The main character, played by Kevin Spacey, has some kind of atonement aspiration, and my first reaction to the movie was that it could provide an analogy for atonement theology. But after further thought, I decided the differences between Gale and Jesus were a bridge too far: Gale’s approach to atonement is manipulative and deceitful, which ultimately undermines the movie’s central message. The means are not consonant with the end. I did, however, come away from the movie with an increased appreciation of Kate Winslet’s capacities as an actress.
I also came away with another question: What makes a movie suitable for Christian viewing, teaching or analogy? In Australia we are far removed from Texan death-sentence-politics, but the issue still raises critical questions for Christian reflection, discussion and action. Some people would reject the movie immediately, on account of its rating, disturbing imagery, nudity and language. Others use different criteria to assess the validity or usefulness of a movie for Christian viewing or teaching. What criteria do you use?