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Lacking in execution

[Photos: Universal Studios]
Kevin Spacey plays the title character, a law professor who sits on Texas’ death row, in The Life of David Gale.

By STEVE PERSALL, Times Film Critic

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 20, 2003

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The death-row thriller The Life of David Gale is undermined by its illogical plot and ranting liberalism.

The Life of David Gale is a death row drama with a twist viewers see coming a last-mile away. The final shot is sure to leave moviegoers buzzing. The smartest will realize that director Alan Parker's fade-out makes the rest of the movie needless except as a rant so liberal that liberals may be embarrassed.

The surprise won't be revealed here. However, the solution causes the rest of Parker's puzzle to unravel. Like the vague climaxes of Basic Instinct and Jagged Edge, the end of The Life of David Gale begs more crucial questions than the one it answers about guilt or innocence.
David Gale (Kevin Spacey) invites journalist Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet) to hear his story and prove his innocence.

Kevin Spacey plays the title role, a University of Texas law professor and outspoken critic of the death penalty. Now he faces execution, convicted of torturing, raping and murdering a colleague, storefront activist Constance Hallaway (Laura Linney). Gale already ruined his family and career by having sex with an expelled student (Rhona Mitra). Three days before his death by lethal injection, Gale invites reporter Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet) to hear his story and prove his innocence.

The screenplay by Charles Randolph makes everyone speak in polemics: Gale can't even get drunk without raving about Athenian law and such in long-winded allegories. Constance opens nearly every conversation with information about an execution appeal or whining about inhumanity. Randolph does better with secondary roles: Bitsey's naive intern (Gabriel Mann), a macabre tour guide, a jocular warden and Bitsey's editor. All the performances are good; the plot's incessant cleverness gets in the way.

Consider these thoughts after the show: The vital evidence is planned to be revealed anyway, so why is a major character (you'll know who) even involved? The answer could be a huge sum of money, a plot device handled illogically as a suitcase of cash, rather than the electronic transfer or cashiers check used by anyone with a brain. The suitcase changes hands at least twice without reason except as a tension device that feels more artificial with each transfer.

And, if that final shot is definitive, the entire story relayed by a condemned murderer to an increasingly sympathetic reporter is either an incredible con of moviegoers or an amazingly convoluted scheme for anyone to carry out. Let's just say the same end result could have been accomplished is much smoother fashion. Watch closely and you'll spot an overlooked set of fingerprints that could blow the case open. One episode of CSI teaches us that telltale bruises can be identified more accurately.

The first hour of The Life of David Gale is fascinating, but that feeling starts to fade just about the time a shadowy figure in a pickup truck starts trailing Bitsey. Parker did the same thing with Mississippi Burning, presenting great Southern atmosphere and intriguing questions before resorting to thriller cliches -- like we need another Psycho shower homage -- then painting his movie into a corner with camouflaging plot twists. A movie beginning with stark realism turns into a stretch of all credibility.

Parker's film is flamingly liberal in its approach to capital punishment, with nothing like the stunning fairness of Tim Robbins' Dead Man Walking. Politicians are bloodthirsty; opponents of executions are saintly, tragic and ready for martyrdom. The truth, like it or not, is somewhere to the right of where this film proposes. That's to be expected when a mystery's solution comes so far out of leftfield.
Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet) and intern Zack Stemmons (Gabriel Mann) try to make sense of David Gale’s case.

The Life of David Gale

  • Grade: B-
  • Director: Alan Parker
  • Cast: Kevin Spacey, Kate Winslet, Laura Linney, Gabriel Mann, Matt Craven, Leon Rippy, Rhona Mitra
  • Screenplay: Charles Randolph
  • Rating: R; sexual situations, nudity, violence, profanity
  • Running time: 130 min.

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