Life of David Gale (Michael O’Neil)

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.

“Gritty Movies”

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?


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  • John Mark

    I struggle with this. I’m a baby-boomer and from a church that was flat out opposed to movies, or TV for that matter when I was a kid. I have an aversion to a lot of the ‘negatives’ in today’s films. Nudity? might encourage lust. Bad language? Violence? could desensitize us to the same. I personally feel that sex, anger, crime, dishonesty, and other adult themes can be spoken to without vulgarity or crassness. I read Plugged In movie reviews, and find myself wondering; will they go see 50 Shades of Grey when the film version appears, as it is rumored to do–and carefully note every profanity, bondage scene, every skimpy outfit, and so on? I find myself wondering; do I need Focus on the Family to help me stay away from this movie?
    Some conservative Christians have blanket policies, no movies, no R rated movies, or some equivalent. I don’t know what criteria a Christian should use….except to say that there should be some careful consideration as to what we ingest as entertainment. I personally was fascinated by The Children of Men–the book–but did not see the movie because Mark Steyn–no prude–said it was riddled with obscenity. Ironically, Mark used the very word he felt cheapened the movie about four times in a row in his review….go figure, as they say.
    this comment doesn’t answer the question, I know. My hope is that the growing presence of believers in the world of film will eventually result in thoughtful, well written, skillfully produced work that manages to deal with the gritty subjects of life without pandering to the Hollywood elite, or the unwashed and uncivilized masses. Yes, as an article I read recently says “we are all movie goers now.” I hope we become prudent and educated and Spirit-led movie goers, for the sake of artistic beauty and truth.

  • Dave

    This is a question that I struggle with on many levels: preacher, father, teacher, professor, mentor, etc…not to mention that fact that I am an avid movie fan (though I rarely see movies at the theater any more!).

    I used to teach an intro to ethics class where I used the film, The Life of David Gale for fodder, reaction, discussion about the death penalty issue. Even though they were college students I always gave them an “out” because of the content in this particular film. I always put a precautionary statement in my syllabus and verbally told the class that there were scenes and content that I considered objectionable and that I would gladly allow them an alternative if they chose not to watch it based on moral or spiritual reasons.

    I think we need to view the film industry with worldview eyes…if the film is not coherent with our worldview then we probably should not be watching it (that being said I have learned a LOT about myself and my faith from movies that I would not want my children to watch!!). A better question might be…is it possible for followers of Jesus to develop a set of “filters” that allow us to glean what might be beneficial and to simply jettison the rest.

    I cite The Shawshank Redemption as test case…there are some redeeming features in the movie but I am unsure if they outweigh the troubling content…to that end I watch the edited for TV version WITH my teenagers and then we discuss the merits of the film.

    I am with you on the atonement issue in David Gale…it falls short…but my experience has been positive using it as a launchpad to discuss the ethics of the death penalty.

  • I watched the Oscar-winning film, The Hours, while I was at Fuller, and wrote a paper on it. The assignment entailed, as perhaps you sought in David Gale, seeking redemptive strands or spiritual truth in the movie itself. At that time, I failed to find the former. (If you saw it, you may recall the movie begins w/ a suicide and ends with a suicide, and there’s a lot of grim reality and magical thinking in it.)

    A year or two later, however, when I was teaching 1 Corinthians, I prayed about different movie clips which might illustrate major theological points that I understood the Holy Spirit wanted me to emphasize in each chapter. I was surprised that The Hours resurfaced in prayer. I realized that one of the final scenes in The Hours worked very well for helping to illustrate Paul’s “vain”, “futile” or “empty” faith in 1 Corinthians 15 (cf. 15:19). (I stopped the clip before the suicide.) I also used another clip (from Seabiscuit) to help reassert fulness of life & hope.

    So, depending on what aspect of truth I think a thorough exegesis of the scriptural passages is focused on, or what aspect the Holy Spirit is directing as helpful to that particular group of folks, it seems as if many films have portions which might resonate with our human condition as described in the Word. The Hours was difficult for me to continue watching, because I personally found it depressing and disturbing, and yet, its nihilistic ending was brilliant in darkness.

  • DRT

    Very good question!

    I remember waking up at the drive in theater with my parents watching Hang ’em High ('Em_High ). The part I awoke during was the mass hanging scene and some of the lead in to it, and, though I was 6 to 8 at the time, I remember the utter astonishment of people acting that way at an execution (selling stuff, acting like it is a show, kids there). And the two brothers saying bye. Quite a difficult message. It changed me forever.

    My children opened my eyes too. They had been exposed to violent video games, occasional nudity (which I think is a good thing), bad language (I taught them the bad words and why they should not say them), the knowledge that mom and dad are not perfect etc. But when they watched the Batman movie with the Joker character they were quite shaken. The Joker in that movie is someone completely without remorse. He is not someone who does bad and is conflicted about it, he is someone who is evil. My kids reacted strongly to that and I would not have predicted it.

    I don’t draw the line at extreme violence, and I don’t draw the line at swearing. I do draw the line at explicit sex, but not implied sex (I know people who grew up in a one room home where it was quite obvious what mom and dad were doing).

    But, I also remember when the Exorcist came out and there were all these stories about people going crazy when they saw it. And I just saw it on regular TV the other day with only slight editing! The bad part about the exorcist is the horror of possession, not nudity or violence!

    What a difficult subject.

  • Brandon

    I think the first mistake that many Christians make in how they evaluate movies (and music, for that matter) is to have only one category in their minds to critique from (typically “entertainment.”) The simple reality is that many (most?) film makers see themselves as artists first and foremost. (Granted, many films these days have very little artistic value and serve as cash cows for Hollywood execs and their shareholders.) If we can look at film FIRST as an art form, with “entertainment” as a sub-category under the larger heading, I think we’ll have a much more productive, life-affirming, Kingdom-centered way of speaking into our culture in the way that we engage the film industry.

    With that said, I think we ABSOLUTELY SHOULD watch films that may not be coherent with our worldview! Often, even in a film that promotes or glorifies what scripture calls “sin,” there are other elements in the story that we can point at as good, true, beautiful, etc. (Great example by another commenter above about The Hours)

    Aside from that, since growing up in a Christian home, I’ve always been deeply perplexed at the fear lying behind the collective admonition of Evangelical Christians to avoid movies that might “desensitize” us and somehow steal away our faith. Or maybe the fear is that it will cause us to see sin as less sinful. ?? Maybe this kind of thinking tells us more about the weakness and lack of confidence in our faith than about the power of the world’s fallenness to drag us down.

    I look forward to the day that my wife and I decide to sit down with our girls and view films that we deem appropriate (but would never pass the Focus on the Family test) and ask questions like, “What did we see that was beautiful in this movie? Where did we see brokenness? What was consistent / inconsistent with what God says/thinks? Is the main character(s) different by the end than when the story began?”, etc. My hope is that this will train our girls to instinctively follow Jesus into the muck and the mess of the world’s fallenness while calling attention to the redemptive God-sightings all around them.

    For now, we just need to make sure they don’t get too freaked out about the troll bits in Dora. Even then, it makes for good opportunity to discuss fear, etc.

  • Nathan

    My negative criteria:
    1. No Demon movies. i.e. the Omen, exorcist, etc.
    2. No pornographic violence i.e. Saw, Hostel, etc.
    3. No artifact of subcultural ghetto i.e. Fireproof, Left Behind, etc.

    My positive criteria:

    1. Does the film artfully explore or open the Big Questions that persist in th human experience?
    2. Does the work construct a world that offers an explanation of human existence that can dialogue with theology?
    3. Does the work represent Tillich’s concept of existential “question” that the “answering” discipline of theology can engage?
    4. Is the film beautiful?

  • Kyle F

    As a filmmaker I wonder what exactly our methodology would be for converting a film into a verbal synopsis that can be cross-referenced with verbal criteria so we can then make decisions about whether to see a film before we’ve seen it. This is not an academic point. The best film criticism I’ve read has found redemption where most viewers wouldn’t, and I think we can extend this rubric to Jesus himself. This isn’t a cloaked restatement of “anything goes” or artistic relativism in most extreme form. What I find in my own family and circle of friends is censorship invariably driven by cruel distillation of the work up for grabs, and were these “authorities” charged with keeping my soul unsullied I would have been malnourished by their offerings plainly reflecting their tidy worldviews. There is, in fact, a world of difference between words and images in film, and the real art form is building a conversation, spiritual or otherwise, that respects both of these spheres and how their tension forces interpretations to always be works in progress.

  • Ana Mullan

    Films that make me think. Not violent for the sake of violence, evil for the sake of evil, but films that make me wrestle with the world that I live in. The type of films that are pure violence, pure darkness and pure sex are usually shallow films the only way that they can last 90 minutes or so is by putting all the stuff that doesn’t need a script! The Life of David Gale was a very interesting film especially from the point of view that in the end nothing was quite resolved, the question still hangs over if the death penalty is right, and that is the way life is, with a lot of things that don’t have an answer or that we don’t all agree, but the important thing is to look at those questions, think about them and argue intelligently.

  • Jeremy

    Kyle F, excellent point. What a great perspective. Any chance you would play “devil’s advocate” and speak to your initial question. If you did have a “will see, won’t see” rubric, what would be some of your criteria? I imagine that your unique perspective (filmaker) could give me some new thoughts.