- The Washington Times - Friday, February 21, 2003

The most grotesque and insufferable polemical thriller in recent memory, "The Life of David Gale" struggles to land a knockout punch on capital punishment, Texas-style. A fictional governor named Hardin, portrayed by Michael Crabtree, will be easy to recognize as a caricature of President Bush, who won't be permitted to escape Hollywood's leftover grievances just because there's a war under way.
The governor is shown taking a rhetorical pasting from the title character, played by Kevin Spacey, during a public-affairs TV show called "Batter's Box." Nevertheless, the governor is allowed a parting shot in order to place a bee in David's bonnet: He asks David to alert him to any case of a condemned man whose guilt is dubious. Offhand, the sassy repeal advocate can't cite one. Later on, he purports to be that very specimen.
"David Gale," whose protagonist is a hip philosophy professor in Austin, is the debut screenplay of Charles Randolph, who just happens to be an erstwhile philosophy professor. It is strident and suspect from its opening prologue, which finds Kate Winslet abandoning her car and sprinting away from jeopardy of some kind. Soon enough, she is identified as Bitsey Bloom, star reporter for News Magazine and the chosen staffer for a plum assignment: interviewing condemned killer David Gale four days before his scheduled execution.
For a handsome price, he has agreed to favor News Magazine with a morbid exclusive. As he ruefully observes to Bitsey during their first audience, "I used to be the state's leading death-penalty abolitionist. Now I'm on Death Row. Doesn't that strike you as a bit odd?"
Yes, it does. Given Mr. Spacey's movie associations, particularly "The Usual Suspects," and the fact that flashbacks are filtered entirely through David's self-interested confessions to Bitsey, the whole setup is compromised by unsavory and untrustworthy intimations.
Mr. Spacey is meant to hypnotize Miss Winslet and us with an account of how he fell from grace. It started, apparently, with an accusation of sexual molestation from a sultry coed named Berlin (Rhona Mitra). We watch as she ambushes David in his own bathroom during a ribald house party. Despite being an object of erotic aggression, David ends up disgraced when Berlin cries rape. He is reduced to seeking employment at a "Radio Shed" franchise.
David's fondly recollected tailspin culminates in the murder charge. The victim is his beloved but terminally ill colleague in an advocacy group called Death Watch: Constance Harroway, embodied with weary but touching ardor by Laura Linney, the movie's only legitimate hold on human interest.
An atrocity video documenting the murder scene comes to Bitsey's attention. Then she needs to ransack a mystery house for a second incriminating video. The clock ticks down, leaving her with precious little time to save David from a frame-up. Her efforts are perfectly, naively sincere, but there's a big catch, of course, designed as an 11th-hour shock but implicit all along in the fact that David is her principal informant.
The screenplay is far too glib to ennoble Bitsey's delusions or David's purported idealism. Aggravating the weaknesses, director Alan Parker never manages to camouflage the system of deception that undergirds this guilt-tripping fable.
Not that it matters in such a bogus context, but "David Gale" lacks the balance and gravity that Tim Robbins brought to "Dead Man Walking," in which the victims were not entirely obscured or forgotten while compassion was lavished on a condemned killer. Miss Linney gets to allude to the victims in passing, and there's one sign in a crowd that reflects their grievances, but "David Gale" reeks of ill-considered special pleading.
Perhaps the neediest case is Kevin Spacey, whose acting technique seems to be deteriorating along with his judgment. Weighed down here with such cliches as smarty-pants ranting and drunken reeling, the actor continues his free fall. It will be difficult to hit the pavement harder than he does as the unlamented David Gale.

*1/2
TITLE: "The Life of David Gale"
RATING: R (Sustained morbid and tendentious story elements; occasional graphic violence, profanity and sexual candor; graphic simulation of homicide interspersed with nudity)
CREDITS: Directed by Alan Parker. Written by Charles Randolph. Cinematography by Michael Seresin. Production design by Geoffrey Kirkland. Costume design by Renee Ehrlich Kalfus. Editing by Gerry Hambling. Music by Alex Parker and Jake Parker.
RUNNING TIME: 112 minutes


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