The press material for The Life of David Gale goes on and on about capital punishment, leading one to expect another Dead Man Walking. But the death penalty is closer to a McGuffin ' a seemingly relevant irrelevance ' in this Texas-set thriller from Alan Parker, the director of Midnight Express and Mississippi Burning. Looking both haggard and sly, Kevin Spacey plays a philosophy professor who, like Socrates before him, opposes the death penalty. Imagine his surprise, therefore, when after being accused of raping a former student and murdering a fellow Death Watch activist he winds up on Death Row. Or is he surprised? That's one of the questions that run through our minds as The Life of David Gale flashes before our eyes. When the movie opens, he's got four days left to prove he's innocent.
So he calls in "Bitsey" Bloom (Kate Winslet), a reporter for a national newsmagazine who's been described as "Mike Wallace with PMS." I can't say that comes through in Winslet's performance, which is hampered by the fact that scriptwriter Charles Randolph hasn't given her much to play. Until the last third of the movie, when she suddenly morphs into Nancy Drew, Bitsey just kind of sits there listening to Gale describe how he got himself in this jam ' a series of flashbacks that seem to redeem him of every charge except being too smart for his own good. Bitsey's supposedly there to take down his last will and testament and beam it out to the rest of the world. But what if he's telling the truth? What if he didn't have anything to do with the rape or the murder? Shouldn't she do something? Meanwhile, the clock's ticking.
Before it's stopped ticking, The Life of David Gale will have taken more twists and turns than a bag of pretzels. Parker and Randolph may not even have a position on capital punishment, so blithely does the movie traipse through this political minefield of pros and cons. But they've largely succeeded at what they set out to do: Entertain us using Huntsville, Texas, the so-called Execution Capital of America, as a scenic backdrop. Parker shows a real feel for the Lone Star State, where seedy motels line the highways like road-kill armadillos. And he's drawn enjoyable performances out of everyone, especially Spacey and Laura Linney as a couple of high-maintenance brainiacs who might have formed a lasting bond if death hadn't intervened. Exactly how it intervenes is a source of pleasure right up to the final seconds.