A heart-on-its-sleeve anti-capital punishment pic, “The Life of David Gale” espouses the kind of liberal sentiments once the trademark of Stanley Kramer. Alan Parker’s passionate adaptation of first-time screenwriter Charles Randolph’s yarn about a young reporter’s relationship with a death row inmate in Texas punches the expected buttons without being entirely convincing. Convoluted plotting, some of it seemingly inspired by Fritz Lang’s noirish 1956 “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt,” is likely to underwhelm mainstream audiences, especially domestically. Pic could open decently thanks to strong performances by Kevin Spacey and a dramatically slimmed-down Kate Winslet, but word-of-mouth will probably be as lethal as the doses Texas gives condemned murderers. Abroad, and especially in Europe, prospects will be distinctly better, making the decision to launch the film at the Berlin Film Festival a wise one.
Parker, a strong anti-capital punishment advocate, has explored hot-button American justice issues before, notably with “Mississippi Burning” (1988), about the Civil Rights movement, and “Come See the Paradise” (1989), about the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during WWII. Despite his anger and commitment, however, Parker fails to come up with a pic as strong as films like “I Want to Live!” and “Dead Man Walking.”
Parker opens with a striking and at first puzzling scene set in barren farming countryside. In the distance, a car grinds to a halt on a road and a young woman gets out and starts running very fast. The meaning of this sequence isn’t revealed until near the end of the film.
The woman turns out to be Bitsey Bloom (Winslet), top reporter for the NYC-based magazine, “News” and described by one character as “Mike Wallace with PMS.”
Bloom has just served seven days behind bars for contempt of court after refusing to reveal her sources for a story on kid porn.
Now she’s been asked to interview an Austin prisoner, David Gale (Spacey), the former head of philosophy at Austin U. and a prominent member of Deathwatch, a non-profit anti-death penalty group. Gale’s about to be executed for the 1994 rape and murder of Constance Harraway (Laura Linney), who had been the local leader of Deathwatch.
Bloom’s interviews are to be conducted Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday; Gale is to die at 6 p.m. on Friday. Her magazine has agreed to pay half a million dollars in cash to Gale’s attorney for the interviews.
Bloom and intern Zack Stemmons (Gabriel Mann in the sort of thankless sidekick role usually given to young actresses) head for Huntsville, Texas, in a rented car that seems to be overheating. (Screenwriter memo: Wouldn’t they get a replacement car at the first opportunity? They don’t, of course, because the overheating auto will play a key role later in the movie.)
After the usual preliminaries with the seen-it-all prison warden, and with Gale’s avuncular but none-too-bright pony-tailed attorney, Braxton Belyeu (Leon Rippy), Bitsey is introduced to the condemned man.
Gale, it turns out, is a Rhodes scholar, author of two books on philosophy, son of a former ambassador to Spain. Bulk of the pic is divided into three sets of lengthy flashbacks which cover the three interviews; these interviews are bookended by some flashy, but rather pointless, mini-montages, involving wildly tilted camera angles and quick shots of “significant” words, like Pain, Honor, Self-Sacrifice.
At the start of the flashbacks, Gale is seen teaching a class and, afterward, fending off the advances of pert student Berlin (Rhona Mitra), who clearly has the hots for him.
Since his wife, Sharon (Elizabeth Gast), is frequently visiting Barcelona, where she appears to have a lover, the lonely Gale gets to spend plenty of time with Constance, with whom he plans political strategies. But one night, at a party, the drunken Gale is trapped in a bathroom by Berlin and succumbs to her not inconsiderable charms; afterward, she cries rape, and, though the charges are later dropped, his career is ruined. Gale takes to the bottle.
Meanwhile, in the present, Bloom and Zack are followed by a mysterious guy in a cowboy hat and discover a vidcassette, left in Bloom’s motel room, which leads her to believe someone else killed Constance. Pic becomes a race against time to save the condemned man once Bloom and Zack come across startling new evidence, but a climactic series of revelations are not only unconvincing but confusing.
Parker takes his time to tell the crusading story. Though he never passes up an opportunity to reveal figures about crime and punishment in America (we’re told 73% of serial killers vote Republican), his attempts to fashion Randolph’s screenplay into a nail-biting thriller don’t succeed. And, no opportunity is passed up by composers Alex and Jake Parker (the director’s sons) to add to the mood with less-than-subtle music effects; indeed, the music score is one of the film’s major failures.
Spacey effectively portrays the decline and fall of a caustic intellectual, while Winslet acquits herself nobly as the cynical newspaperwoman who comes to believe the condemned man is innocent. In flashback, Linney gives the film’s strongest performance as the activist whose own demons come to haunt her.
Many of Parker’s long-time collaborators, including d.p. Michael Seresin, editor Gerry Hambling and production designer Geoffrey Kirkland, provide sterling contributions to the technically proficient pic.