The Life of David Gale
Lifeless death row experience
By Jon Popick

"By show of hands, who's seen K-Pax? Anyone?"

Sadly, not a biopic about the late actor who played Dr. Carl Hill in the Re-Animator films, The Life of David Gale tries to give you two films for the price of one. It does neither very well. One is supposed to be a thrilling murder-mystery, but it is not gripping, and the ending should be clearly visible to anyone who watches crime dramas on television. The other is yet another bleeding heart, button-pushing, anti-death penalty tale about an innocent man on death row, and the subsequent race-against-the-clock to save him. You know, there's a reason why nobody ever talks about Clint Eastwood's True Crime, or worse yet-Last Dance with Rob Morrow and Sharon Stone. Dead Man Walking is the gold standard. Now just leave it alone already.

The innocent man is the titular David Gale (Kevin Spacey, The Shipping News), though you'll have to invest well over an hour into Life to find out exactly why he's set to get the juice five days after the film starts. This is one of the few things that works well in Life. We know Gale has been convicted of rape and murder, but we don't even know who the victim is, let alone the suggested motive.

Life's early scenes focus on Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet, Iris), a reporter for News Magazine who, after Gale's final appeal is rejected by the courts, is granted three days of exclusive interviews with the condemned man before he meets his maker. Supposedly, Gale has personally requested Bloom because of her high integrity (she recently spent seven days in the clink for refusing to give up a source used for a kiddie porn article), and before you know it, she's being led through Texas prison by a warden (Jim Beaver, Adaptation) who gives her the rundown of what she can and can't do. It's a little like Clarice descending to Hannibal Lecter's cell-even more so once Bloom plops herself down in front of the creepy, non-blinking Gale, who seems to know way more about her than he should.

Their interview starts, highlighted by cool Requiem For a Dream adrenaline shots that signify the beginnings of the flashbacks that portray Gale as a Harvard educated Rhodes scholar, a loving father, a beloved educator, and a political activist with high morals. But he also has an unfaithful wife and a drinking problem, which leads to a hot and heavy bathroom sink sex scene with a recently expelled student (Rhona Mitra, Sweet Home Alabama). Rape charges are filed, and Gale's life is turned upside down. But there's no murder, so this whole thing is some kind of red herring crime. We still don't know why Gale is days away from being executed.

More flashbacks involving Gale's work with the left-wing Deathwatch group, specifically his platonic relationship with the frumpy Constance Hallaway (Laura Linney, The Mothman Prophecies) and a memorable television debate with a governor who is way too much like our Dubya (read: dumb as rocks). His tale has Bloom cracking way too easily for such a tough New York cookie, considering she was adamant Gale was guilty before she ever met him (so much for her legendary subjectivity). Meanwhile, Bloom and her comedic sidekick intern (Gabriel Mann, Abandon) are constantly followed by a cowboy in a scary-looking pickup truck, and that's never a good thing when you're from New York and are in a very rural part of Texas.

In addition to the jaunty narrative structure of Charles Randolph's script (like Gale, he's a philosophy professor), there are a few other things that work with Life. For what amounts to a very one-sided take on the death penalty argument, there isn't one courtroom scene. The score, composed by director Alan Parker's two sons, is perfectly unobtrusive, and it's a blast to watch Linney and Winslet (they have four Oscar nominations between them) play unique roles. Parker (Angela's Ashes) has re-teamed with Michael Seresin, the cinematographer who guided him through his dark work in the '80s (Angel Heart, Birdy).

What doesn't work, on top of the predictability of the whodunit and the fact that Bloom knows way more about the rape-murder than we do (even though we're supposed to be seeing things through her eyes), is Spacey. He's a tremendously gifted actor, but just doesn't belong in a role like this. Spacey's smug, pious appearance, in addition to the whole "I'm Smarter Than You" facade present here, makes for a very unsympathetic character. Plus you're always expecting him to pull some Keyser Soze antic out at the end, which he almost does here (complete with creepy attorney Leon Rippy, Eight Legged Freaks). The overhead shot of Spacey as the drunken Gale looking like Christ on the cross is merely the final straw.