Alan Parker, the director of the death-penalty drama "The Life of David Gale," likes his acting big, his edits hard and his stories slick. A filmmaker with a penchant for highbrow material and an instinct for lowbrow thrills, Parker is a consummate journeyman and a relentless huckster (like a number of major British directors, he started in advertising), and it's a rare one of his movies that doesn't entertain. Even when they're as deadly serious as Parker's earlier prison-house thriller "Midnight Express" or "Mississippi Burning," his revisionist take on the civil-rights movement, these are films in which no one and nothing is beyond exploitation.
Written by Charles Randolph, "The Life of David Gale" involves a former philosophy professor and death-penalty activist (Kevin Spacey) who tries to clear his name in the four days leading up to his scheduled execution. Convicted of killing his fellow activist and university colleague, Constance Harraway (Laura Linney), Gale has landed on death row after enduring a spectacular flameout that ignited with a charge of rape and was fanned by an accusation of murder. As he waits for Texas justice to take its lethal course, Gale narrates his recent life to the one person he says can make his case to the world, a reporter with a jones for controversy and a hardball reputation as "Mike Wallace with PMS."
If you're thinking Christiane Amanpour, think again. Gale's designated pundit is Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet), a tough cookie with peroxide tips who's chased down child pornographers and, having no use for technicalities like objectivity, knows a guilty man when she sees him. Smelling another cover story exclusive, Bitsey travels to Texas to square off against Gale armed with only a pencil and a pad of paper. In extended interviews that shift the story into meticulously detailed flashback, she finds out what he taught (abstruse psychoanalytic theory) and to whom (a student who promised him "anything" for a passing grade). She learns what he's been reading (he sneers at William Bennett's "The Book of Virtues"), catalogs his bad habits (booze and students who promise him anything) and even discovers the kind of toy his young son dragged around (stuffed).
In time, Bitsey also uncovers how he ended up in prison. "The Life of David Gale" is pitched as a mystery but it doesn't take all that long to piece together the puzzle since neither Parker nor the screenwriter can resist leaving clues scattered through every scene. (Admittedly, I was slower on the uptake than either of my friends, both of whom took to irritatingly whispering, "Haven't you figured it out yet?")
Frankly, the film's real surprise is that it doesn't collapse under the weight of its sanctimonious posturing and howling pretension. The film is crammed with high-cultural references and people playing "smart," but none of it adds up -- not Bitsey, not Gale, not Constance, not the booze-soaked academic bacchanal and certainly not the tinhorn lawyer who drawls, "Let's not throw a pity party and sit around reading Kafka."
Well, let's, actually. If for no other reason than Parker's tendency to smash through stories ends up being brutal on Spacey and Winslet. Both actors have proven they can more than bite off oversized emotions but tend to do their best work with the mute on. This seems somehow lost on Spacey, whose career may not withstand too much more melodramatic sloshing; as with many Academy Award winners, the actor seems increasingly drawn to roles tailored to show him in a virtuous light.
Like Spacey, Winslet can be absolutely fearless -- this is, after all, a woman who survived "Titanic" and stood naked toe-to-toe with Harvey Keitel in "Holy Smoke" -- but she's flummoxed by a character who's no more evolved than Brenda Starr. Somehow it's hard to imagine Amanpour stamping her foot in frustration during an interview; she may be a girl reporter but she's definitely not bitsy.
'The Life of David Gale'
MPAA rating: R, for violent images, nudity, language and sexuality.
Times guidelines: There are very disturbing images of a naked woman dying violently.
Universal Pictures and Intermedia Films present a Saturn Films/Dirty Hands production, released by Universal Pictures. Director Alan Parker. Writer Charles Randolph. Producers Alan Parker, Nicolas Cage. Director of photography Michael Serensin. Production designer Geoffrey Kirkland. Editor Gerry Hambling. Music Alex Parker, Jake Parker. Costume designer Renee Ehrlich Kalfus. Casting Juliet Taylor, Howard Feuer. Running time: 2 hours, 11 minutes.
In general release.