The United States executes more people per capita per year than any other developed country in the world. If you pay attention, you will learn this and several dozen other statistics that are inelegantly spewed out in Alan Parker’s new movie with a message, “The Life of David Gale.” But you might be too distracted by the film’s self-righteous tone and contrived plot to leave the theater with anything other than a distaste for Hollywood’s capacity to take a relevant issue and turn it into an exploitative thriller.
The plot’s manipulative improbabilities begin with the fact that Kate Winslet’s character is named “Bitsey” and end with a resolution so preposterous that it is difficult to resist the temptation to reveal it here for comic value. Kevin Spacey plays David Gale, a former philosophy professor and death penalty abolitionist convicted for the rape and murder of fellow activist Constance Harraway (Laura Linney). Three days away from his execution, Gale enlists the help of Bitsey Bloom, star reporter for News magazine, to tell his story and prove his innocence.
Much of the story unfolds in long flashbacks as we learn of how Gale’s arrogance and alcoholism interfere with his teaching and his work for Deathwatch, a local death penalty abolitionist organization. After a sexual indiscretion with a student costs him his job, his marriage, and custody of his son, drunk and broken Gale finds himself accused of a crime he claims he did not commit. A few other suspicious characters come into the mix, such as Gale’s lawyer, whom we know not to trust because of his ponytail and bad teeth, and a mysterious cowboy who is constantly lurking around Bitsey as the plot goes through its 130 minute run of unbelievable twists and turns.
Kevin Spacey gives a strong performance as the troubled activist Gale, though he is far more appealing reeling drunk in his Harvard sweatshirt yelling about Socrates to whoever will listen than when self-righteously spouting out statistics on capital punishment. It is disappointing to see Spacey wasted in yet another mediocre post-“American Beauty” movie in the wake of other failures like “The Shipping News” and “Pay it Forward.” He seems to have replaced Nicolas Cage as the best actor who chooses the worst films, though Cage gets honorable mention for co-producing this one.
Laura Linney does the best that she can with the script, almost making us believe in the absurd plot twists her character must suffer. Winslet is competent, though her character does little more than half-heartedly gripe about her difficulties as a woman reporter and run around frantically insisting that people “Call the Supreme Court desk clerk!” It is hard not to question the filmmaker’s sincerity towards Bitsey’s comments on sexism considering the amount of gratuitous female nudity in this film, particularly during Linney’s death scene which plays over and over again in a manner that is both distasteful and artistically unnecessary.
Ultimately, the film’s heavy-handed manipulations make it more of a parody of a movie that makes a point about capital punishment than one that actually does so. It resembles the film-within-the-film in Robert Altman’s “The Player,” where slick studio executives turn a writing team’s artistic vision of a wrongful conviction and execution into a cheesy melodrama with Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts.
What makes this movie more troubling is its reinforcement of the same inequality it purports to condemn. As the film points out briefly in one of its many clumsy montages of media commentary, racial and economic issues play major roles in the application of the death penalty. Yet our lens for viewing the injustice of capital punishment is focused on white and well-educated Gale. The only screen time the more realistic depictions of people sentenced to execution receive is when a group of black and Latino prisoners leer at Kate Winslet in the background after the warden tells her not to wear open-toed shoes, because “It drives them crazy.” Ultimately, you leave the movie more disgusted with America’s film industry than its criminal justice system.