Drama about anti-death penalty activist on death row relies too heavily on trite plot devices
Practically trumpeting its utter dependence on Hollywood convention, the death row drama-with-a-twist entitled "The Life of David Gale" acts as its own executioner, injecting the very first scene with a lethal cliché from which the film never recovers.
In the opening moments, a rental car driven by a big-city journalist (Kate Winslet) breaks down on a lonely Texas highway as she's desperately rushing to an execution with evidence that could exonerate the man scheduled to die.
So trite and inane is this plot device that 11 years ago it was a major punchline in Robert Altman's cynical, Hollywood-skewering farce "The Player." But to director Alan Parker ("Angela's Ashes") and writer Charles Randolph this is a very serious moment in what they erroneously hope will be a very important film about the capital punishment debate.
The man sentenced to die, you see, is a anti-death penalty advocate named David Gale (Kevin Spacey), who was convicted of raping and killing his dearest ally in the cause. After this tease of an opening scene, Rudolph jumps back five days to when Gale began telling his story to top-notch, tough-cookie magazine reporter Bitsey Bloom -- who despite Winslet's best efforts to make her look smart, has insurmountably feeble journalistic instincts.
Convinced Gale is guilty even though she's clearly done no research on his case before their first jailhouse meeting, she doesn't ask a single practical question over three days of interviews -- even after she discovers he's called her there because he thinks she can prove his innocence.
Instead of providing her with the vital facts she'd need to accomplish this, Gale gives a meticulous chronological account of events -- flashbacks of which become the bulk of the movie -- that will be sure to leave her little time to act on his behalf. (He has a reason for this, we learn in a later twist, but that doesn't explain Bloom's failure as an interviewer.)
For two hours a day Gale unveils a painful history that includes a university teaching career and a marriage both destroyed by a student's false accusation of rape, and his close friendship with the victim (Laura Linney), a fellow activist secretly suffering from Leukemia.
Meanwhile, a mysterious cowboy in a rusty pick-up is stalking Bloom in the film's present, as she returns to her hotel room one afternoon to find someone has left her a partial copy of a videotape made during the killing. Is the real killer out there, she's forced to wonder, cruelly toying with Gale's life?
There's a suspenseful, consequential story to be told here, but it's sublimated by fatuous Hollywood flashiness (hotbutton words that have little to do with the story -- "Truth! Power! Lust! Fantasy! Desire!" -- frequently flash across the screen, accompanied by a cartwheeling camera effect) and by attempts to turn the film into a John Grisham-styled thriller. Those attempts are in vain, however, in a legal movie that never even establishes a motive for its condemned main character's supposed crime.
Fully embodying Gale's struggle to climb out of a quagmire of depression and drink, Spacey's performance is affectingly sad and evocative -- although not a great success at making the man seem as complicated as the actor and director imagine him to be.
Linney ("You Can Count On Me") is exceptionally moving as the weary but passionate driving force behind the local death penalty protest movement. The scene in which she has a breakdown after failing to stay the execution of a teenage cop killer has a haunting intensity, and she gives her character such fervor that it's quite unsettling to watch that video of her nude, handcuffed and struggling for breath with a plastic bag taped over her head.
But Winslet's talent is largely wasted playing Bloom, whose utilitarian role as conduit for Gale's story is betrayed by her lack of journalistic authenticity and her because-the-script-says-so behavior.
When she decides to visit the crime scene and reenact the murder, she doesn't explain to anyone -- not her plot-superfluous intern (Gabriel Mann), not the woman who now lives in Linney's house -- what she's doing. Why? Because for the sake of cinematic tension, the script says so. When she continues to notice the "check engine" light in her rental car flashing throughout the movie, why doesn't she take one of the 22 hours a day she's not spending with Gale to get it fixed? Because the script says so. Gotta have that will-she-make-it-in-time finale!
Winslet provides Bloom with bona fide vigor and emotion, but the part is so generic that almost any actress too good for "Baywatch" could have done the same. It's a shame "The Life of David Gale" couldn't have abandoned its conventions and risen to a level of intelligence better suited to its gifted cast.