Dir: Alan Parker. US. 2002. 128mins.
The prosecution's case prevails in passing judgement on The Life of David Gale, a polemical thriller which has all the conviction and brio one expects of an Alan Parker film, but is let down by the two central performances and a spectacularly feeble script. Well-positioned in the US as one of the only new adult-targeted pictures in the months of February and March (it opens Feb 21), it should have some mileage in its theatrical release, a pattern which will be repeated overseas where audiences will be drawn by its high-profile cast and topical debates about the US death penalty. Ironically, for all its pedigree, pseudo-seriousness and a world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival on Feb 7, the film will be enjoyed most as a potboiling thriller whose strongest life will be on video/DVD and TV down the line. It will not be well-received by critics or sophisticated adults who are likely to be turned off by a plot full of philosophical posturing and myriad "twists" which - judging by reactions at the screening caught - can be guessed well before they belatedly hove into view.
Gale (Kevin Spacey) is another of Parker's persecuted heroes. A brilliant professor of philosophy and leading campaigner against capital punishment, he has been convicted of murder and now sits himself on Death Row in Texas. Intending to give three exclusive press interviews in the week leading up to his execution, he hand-picks Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet), a star investigative journalist at a Newsweek-like magazine. During their meetings - which are punctuated by irritating, almost subliminal montages of images and words such as PAIN, DEATH and SELF-SACRIFICE - the film flashes back to Gale's version of events.
When his marriage crashes after a student seduces him into rough sex and subsequently accuses him of rape, Gale becomes an alcoholic and an outcast. Then his closest friend (Laura Linney), a faded idealist and fellow anti-execution campaigner, is found apparently raped and murdered, with Gale's sperm inside her. Naturally, all is not as it seems, and the film's parallel storyline has Winslet and a young colleague (Gabriel Mann) laboriously uncovering the truth, with a mandatory 11th-hour rush to stay execution.
Death Row has been the setting for a slew of recent films, some of them outstanding: Bruce Beresford's The Last Dance (1996), Frank Darabont's The Green Mile, Clint Eastwood's True Crime (both 1999), Marc Forster's Monster's Ball (2001) and Tim Robbins' Dead Man Walking (1995), the benchmark against which all other treatments of this subject must still be measured. David Gale's first-time screenwriter Charles Randolph does not have much of consequence to add to the genre; certainly, it never comes near Dead Man Walking's success in offering either a balanced debate on capital punishment or an enthralling account of the relationship between the condemned man and his female visitor. Unlike Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn in that film, Spacey and Winslet barely seem to connect emotionally and both actors' performances are well below par.
Winslet is not convincing as a hard-bitten, hotshot reporter, but in any case this role is underwritten, with no sense of what makes Bitsey tick nor how she is transformed in the course of the story. The part of Gale was reportedly considered by both George Clooney and Nicolas Cage, who originally commissioned the script and now takes a producer's credit. Spacey is an uncomfortable fit with the character. His cool, detached, faintly creepy persona is fine when Gale's innocence is in doubt, less so when he needs to become a Christ-like martyr.
Production values are all polished, with an effective, unobtrusive score from Parker's two sons, and some sharp supporting performances from Rhona Mitry as the predatory student, Leon Rippy as a slick, vaguely disconcerting Southern lawyer and above all, the quietly riveting Linney.
Prod co: Universal, Intermedia, Saturn Pictures
US dist: Universal
Int'l dist: UIP
Exec prods: Mortiz Borman, Guy East, Nigel Sinclair
Prods: Alan Parker, Nicolas Cage, Jeff Levine
Scr: Charles Randolph
Cinematography: Michael Seresin
Prod des: Geoffrey Kirkland
Ed: Gerry Hambling
Music: Alex Parker, Jake Parker
Main cast: Kevin Spacey, Kate Winslet, Laura Linney, Gabriel Mann, Matt Craven, Leon Rippy, Rhona Mitra