Reporter Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet, "Iris") is assigned to interview a Texas University professor and anti-death penalty advocate who is on death row for the rape and murder of a DeathWatch colleague. Investigating the crime, Bloom comes to know the man and doubt the system that incarcerates him and tries to save "The Live of David Gale."
British director Alan Parker ("Evita") fails to smooth out the wrinkles in first time screenwriter Charles Rudolph's presumably twisty plot. While Winslet is forced to react to script manipulations like a greyhound chasing a rabbit, Kevin Spacey once again chooses a role in which he can aspire to beatification.
Granted David Gale is fashionably flawed, an alcoholic with an ego his best friend Constance (Laura Linney, "The Mothman Prophecies") tries to keep in check. He jumps at an opportunity for a televised debate with the state's pro-death penalty governor, backs him into a corner, then goes too far and loses when he can't name one innocent man put to death under the governor's tenure. His reputation is eviscerated when he's seduced by a former grad student, Berlin, at a booze-fueled party who then turns around and cries rape (a necessary plot manipulation that's never given proper motivation).
All this is shown in flashback as David Gale talks to Bitsey on the first of her three days' interviews before he is put to death on the fourth. Gale stipulated the terms, which include a half a mil and Bitsey, chosen, he tells her, for her refusal to disclose sources on a kiddie porn piece. Bitsey arrived in Texas with intern Zack (Gabriel Mann, "Things Behind the Sun") whose presence is necessary to show off Bitsey as 'Mike Wallace with PMS,' and a rental car with an engine warning light that goes off at inopportune times. She's also tailed by a mysterious cowboy who hangs back threateningly but never approaches. As David tells her more of the story and Bitsey does her own investigation, she begins to believe that he did not rape and murder Constance. Then she receives a mysterious videotape (in a scene that tries to create suspense where there is none) that puts her in a race against the executioner's clock.
Winslet has a thankless role and Spacey veers between simpering righteousness and sodden self pity, particularly in a ridiculous scene that has him drunkenly braying about Aristotle on a crowded sidewalk. Laura Linney, however, gives a very effective performance as a mousy looking woman of great strength - she raises the bar. Also good is Leon Rippy ("Eight-Legged Freaks") as Gale's colorfully ineffective lawyer Braxton Belyeu and Jim Beaver ("Adaptation") in a small role as the prison's public relations officer.
The film has some amount of entertainment value, but "The Life of David Gale" is essentially a series of setups. Parker films Berlin's seduction of drunken David so that it is quite obvious she's setting the stage for rape claims. After David's initial setup, just about everyone in the film has a shot at setting up someone else, but ultimately it is the audience who is being set up by a selective parceling of information that becomes pretty transparent as the film progresses. Alan Parker has journeyed to the American South with political purpose before in "Mississippi Burning," but this time his message is undermined by more than thriller cliches. When the 'shocking twist' becomes apparent, think about it - the logic is wrong as the justice system has been tampered with by those making their righteous point.
With only four days left in his life, Death Row inmate and anti-death penalty advocate David Gale (Kevin Spacey) relents to give an interview and specifically asks for hard-hitting news magazine reporter Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet). He declares his innocence, tells his story and gives Bitsey the imposing eleventh hour task to prove it true in "The Life of David Gale."
With a cast led by two-time Oscar winner Kevin Spacey and Oscar-nominated actresses Kate Winslet and Laura Linney, plus the directing talents of Alan Parker, "The Life of David Gale" seems like a sure bet. It deals with the controversial topic of the death penalty from the view of those who are adamantly, even militantly, against it. At the very least we should have some high drama over the controversy akin to the 1995 film, "Dead Man Walking." Sad to say, this is not the case.
"David Gale" tries to be several things, which is why it loses its momentum and emotional impact. It is, as I said, an anti-death penalty diatribe that hits you over the head with its statement: "If just one innocent man is saved from death by eliminating capital punishment, then it is worth it." Then, there is the murder mystery that Bitsey and her news magazine assistant Zack Stemmons (Gabriel Mann) must pursue when Gale publicly declares, at the last minute, his innocence of the heinous crime that landed him on the Row years before. Then, there is the race against the clock as Bitsey and Zack rush to prove Gale's innocence and save his life. Then there is what the story is really about.
As the film unfolds to the required stridency of Gale getting his message of death penalty abolition across - he confronts the governor of Texas during a televised debate and Gale establishes himself as a troublemaker - it becomes obvious that someone is out to get him. He loses his teaching position at a Texas university after being accused of rape by a former student (Rhona Mitra). His wife has left him, taking David's beloved little boy with her, and she sold the family home. Taking to drink, Gale spirals downward but is still befriended and helped by his Deathwatch colleague Constance Harraway (Linney). When Harraway is brutally raped and murdered, Gale becomes the prime suspect and is arrested, convicted and put on Texas's notorious Death Row.
Bitsey's boss assigns her to do a series of 3 two-hour interviews just days before the execution. Bloom is reluctant to hear Gale's case, believing that he, like all people awaiting their death by the state, must be guilty. As David tells her his story, though, it becomes obvious to her that the bright, intelligent, well-spoken man in the cage just may be telling the truth. When she and Zack spot a mysterious cowboy in a pickup truck shadowing them, suspicions arise that Gale may really not be a murderer. A videotape showing incriminating evidence mysteriously turns up and the news sleuths keep on digging for the truth - the real truth.
I found few surprises in "The Life of David Gale." The "shocking" ending, when all is finally revealed, was telegraphed very early on and I didn't fall for the twists and turns of the script by Charles Randolph. I'm not going to give the story away for those who decide to see, but I am disappointed in the obvious plotline.
The actors give sincere performances across the board, even in the smaller roles. But, the lack of true suspense keeps their efforts at arms length. Kevin Spacey lends nothing new in the role of David Gale. There is a sameness to Spacey's performances, of late, that keeps cropping up no matter how diverse his characters are - see "The Shipping News" and "K-Pax" for examples of the Spacey-izing of the characters. His almost routine David Gale personification makes me long to see Verbal Kint in "The Usual Suspects."
Kate Winslet does her usual fine job but her character, though prominent throughout the film, represents a person rushed into the events that unfold. We only have a few "days" of the film to get to know her Bitsey and there is little in the way of character development. Faring much better is Laura Linney as advocate and murder victim Constance. We get to see Harraway over a period of years and Linney is able to mine a wealth of nuance in her portrayal. The supporting cast is able to put personality into the smaller roles.
Techs are straightforward but without note. Alan Parker moves his cast and crew capably but not with distinction. Photography, by Michael Seresin, and production design, by Geoffrey Kirkland, do the job.
"The Life of David Gale" was slated to open in 2002 but the distributors knew, I think, that it would get buried under the weight of better films, hence, its release during the winter doldrums. The anti-death penalty nature of the film should be lauded but it lacks the impact because of the muddled direction of the story. I give it a C+.
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