With its dubious hero a capital-punishment abolitionist who's sitting on death row, and its brooding themes of duty and remorse, The Life of David Gale is at once about as high-concept and low-gloss as Hollywood dramas get. It's a cleverly scripted film of serious intent, but it's so over-engineered it ends up tying itself in knots.
Gale (Kevin Spacey) is an Austin, Texas, philosophy professor. One day he's lecturing on Jacques Lacan's theories about living a meaningful life; the next, it seems, he's awaiting lethal injection for the rape and murder of close friend Constance Harraway (Laura Linney), who was also his colleague in DeathWatch, a shoestring operation fighting executions in the state that does them most. Just days before his own expiration date, the previously mum Gale requests an interview with magazine reporter Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet), a hard-nosed type puzzled why she was chosen.
Partly, it's so Gale has an excuse to tell us his story: How he lost most everything when a vengeful co-ed framed him for rape, and then what little was left after a conviction for Harraway's brutal rape and murder. But he also wants Bloom to clear his name -- if not to save him, then only to repair his memory for the benefit of his preschool-age son, now living with his estranged wife in Spain.
The script, written by a former philo prof named Charles Reynolds, sketches the familiar arguments for and against the death penalty, plus some less familiar ones (such as the crappy legal representation the accused are often stuck with). It also tosses out a passel of Eye-for-an-Eye Trading Card Co. facts (most states without a death penalty have lower murder rates than those that do; 66 percent of Americans back capital punishment).
Still, as directed by Alan Parker, who most recently filmed the somber memoir Angela's Ashes, The Life of David Gale ultimately feels less like the death-row thriller it's marketed as and more like a story of personal redemption. Gale, after all, is a family man who's also an alcoholic and an adulterer; even his abolitionism is informed by his egotism, one of many nice touches in Reynolds' literate script. Gale has much to atone for, not least failing his own ideals.
Indeed, where the film feels most forced is (forgive me) in the execution. That's partly because Spacey doesn't for a second convince me Gale is a doting dad or an enthusiastic cheater. He's uninteresting in his interview scenes with the competent Kate Winslet, though somewhat better with the vibrant Linney; in any case, his is a mannered, technique-y performance, and it repeatedly drains the life out of the movie.
Then there's the film's outlandish ending, by which time you'll be feeling either pleasantly full of its plethoric plot and factoids, or else kind of worn out -- just in time to witness what has to be cinema's most novel combination of snuff film and social activism. * * 1/2