Kevin Spacey is a consummate movie actor and a guy with a strong social conscience, and he exposes both sides in "The Life of David Gale," a death-penalty drama directed and co-produced by vibrant and contentious filmmaker Alan Parker.
But Spacey's art and social idealism are at odds with each other here, and so are Parker's. By turns brilliant and simplistic, moving and preposterous, the movie takes one of the ultimate hot-button American issues -- the morality of capital punishment -- and dissolves it into a volatile mix of psychological thriller and socio-political fable. This is a movie that rivets the attention and stirs our emotions before collapsing into wild, unconvincing melodrama.
It's a shame. "Gale" is a disappointing show precisely because its ambitions are so high and its talent so undeniable. When it stumbles in the last half, you mourn for its lost possibilities.
The movie is directed with the crackling technical mastery and rich atmosphere Parker gets in his best movies, "Midnight Express," "Shoot the Moon," "Birdy" and "The Commitments." The excellent cast is headed by Spacey as Gale, an anti-death penalty activist who winds up on death row himself; Kate Winslet as Bitsey Bloom, the hard-nosed reporter who covers his last days; and Laura Linney as Constance Harraway, David's longtime fellow activist and also the woman he's convicted of raping and murdering. All give passionate performances, especially Linney, who dissolves herself so completely into her role as dedicated, tragic Constance that it's often hard to recognize her.
Parker can generate powerful emotion and overwhelming excitement, but "Gale" isn't one of his best movies. Most of the problem is the script, written by Charles Rudolph with equal doses of intelligence, cliche and political kitsch.
At the start, you might be fooled for a while into thinking it's an actual case history. Parker and writer Rudolph tell the story in the present -- the last four days before David's scheduled execution -- and in flashbacks, as David recounts his story to Bitsey. At first, he seems a fascinating character, a brilliant academic and political idealist, head of the philosophy department at a Texas university. But he is also deeply fallible. He's an alcoholic who succumbs to the advances of a sexy student (Rhona Mitra) looking for a better grade, and he winds up jobless and accused of rape.
Perhaps Rudolph should have kept his drama at a lower-stakes level, making it a conflict between private morality and public politics without actually putting David on death row. Or maybe he could have invented a less gruesome Grand Guignol way of getting him convicted, instead of the torture and suffocation of Constance. Instead, the movie becomes a clock-race thriller, with tough reporter Bitsey digging into his case along with her bright young intern, Zack Stemmons (Gabriel Mann). While the execution draws nearer and mysterious cowboys lurk and prowl, Bitsey and Zack discover what is either a tangled conspiratorial web or the tragedy of a conflicted genius who's torn irrevocably between good and evil.
Setting the film in Texas makes a political point, especially when the movie brings on a preppy-looking governor named Hardin (Michael Crabtree), an obvious George W. Bush stand-in, to debate David on TV. But "Gale" muddles its polemics and its thriller potential by the mad, excessive complications of the story. We learn the truth, eventually, in an unsatisfying surprise ending that works neither as thriller nor as political persuasion.
Spacey, who does a great drunk scene, is matchless at suggesting David's intellect. Few American actors could convincingly talk on screen about French psychoanalytical theorist Jacques Lacan, much less convince us they teach a class about him. Fewer still could convey not only brilliance but mad passion. Still, it's wasted. David is ultimately an unlikely character because he does such unlikely things. Bitsey is equally unlikely. At one point, bereft of a cell phone, she has to sprint to the death house to try to rescue Gale at the last second -- a scene irresistibly like Mae Marsh's car racing the train in D.W. Griffith's 1916 "Intolerance." But Griffith did it better.
Leon Rippy gives a good Southern-fried ham performance as David's affably corrupt attorney, and the minor characters have flavor. But the only convincing performance is Linney's. She manages to portray, with remarkable sensitivity and despite over-emphatic dialogue, the plight of an activist who sacrifices everything to her cause.
Hamstrung by its wild plot, the movie never quite makes its own best case against capital punishment. And the one element of "The Life of David Gale" that is a potent movie argument against capital punishment -- Linney's heartbreaking performance -- is sabotaged by the weird ending.
Like Oliver Stone, Parker sometimes lets his strong social conscience get undercut by his own high flair for movie pyrotechnics. But one odd thing about "The Life of David Gale" is that it works best if you don't take it seriously, if you simply let the movie hurl you along into the sheer nuttiness of its story twists. Still, as Parker and his actors may realize, that's too high a price to pay when you want to change hearts.
2 1/2 stars (out of 4) "The Life of David Gale"
Directed by Alan Parker; written by Charles Randolph; photographed by Michael Seresin; edited by Gerry Hambling; production designed by Geoffrey Kirkland; music by Alex Parker, Jake Parker; produced by Parker, Nicolas Cage. A Universal Pictures release; opens Friday, Feb. 21. Running time: 2:10. MPAA rating: R (violent images, nudity, language and sexuality).
David Gale -- Kevin Spacey
Bitsey Bloom -- Kate Winslet
Constance Harraway -- Laura Linney
Zack Stemmons -- Gabriel Mann
Dusty Wright -- Matt Craven
Berlin -- Rhona Mitra Braxton Belyeu -- Leon Rippy
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times