[Screen It]


(2003) (Kevin Spacey, Kate Winslet) (R)

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Dramatic Thriller: A reporter interviews a professor and death penalty opponent who's now on death row for raping and murdering a colleague.
Elizabeth "Bitsey" Bloom (KATE WINSLET) is a magazine news reporter who's been called upon to interview death row inmate David Gale (KEVIN SPACEY). Set to die via lethal injection at the end of the week, the former philosophy professor and his attorney, Braxton Belyeu (LEON RIPPY), have personally selected Bitsey for what will amount to three, two-hour sessions.

Considering that he's never given an interview regarding his conviction of raping and murdering his colleague and fellow anti-death penalty advocate, Constance Harraway (LAURA LINNEY), Bitsey takes the assignment. She's not happy, however, that an intern, Zack Stemmons (GABRIEL MANN), is sent along with her, but already has her mind set that Gale is guilty and deserves to die.

When she meets him and he recounts his story, however, she soon begins to change her mind. Over the course of three days and through a series of flashbacks, Gale tells her about his troubled marriage to Sharon (ELIZABETH GAST) but loving relationship with their son, Jamie (NOAH TRUESDALE). She also learns of his drinking problem and a brief and drunken tryst with one of his students, Berlin (RHONA MITRA). That then turned into an allegation of rape which sent his life into a downward spiral, eventually leading to him being charged with the crimes against Constance.

With time running out and a shadowy figure, Dusty Wright (MATT CRAVEN), trailing their every move, Bitsey and Zack must figure out the truth about what occurred to Constance, whether Gale was involved and do so all before he's executed.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
For the most part, people generally like others who are impassioned. That's not only because many wish they felt the same way about something in their lives, but also because that ardor makes such people interesting. That is, until that passion turns into an unwelcome crusade to pester, persuade or coerce others into hearing and/or adopting their beliefs.

There's no quicker way to turn off others than to become a zealot who doesn't know when to stop or at least temper their fervor. That's usually the case when it comes to hot-button issues such as religion, abortion and the death penalty.

Since they're so controversial and usually feature opposing forces, such matters can make for intriguing, powerful and even influential movies, unless they fall victim to the same sort of overzealousness. Such is the case with "The Life of David Gale," the latest race-against-the-clock, death row dramatic thriller.

The matter of innocent people serving time and even being executed while on death row is certainly an important topic that's worth exploring. Yet, director Alan Parker ("Angela's Ashes," "Evita") - who's apparently forgotten about the word subtlety - is so overbearing, heavy-handed and one-sided in his approach telling screenwriter Charles Randolph's (making his debut) story that even those who agree with his stance will likely think he's gone too far.

If it's not the portrayal of everyone on the pro side as being cold, callous or just plain evil, it's all of the visual symbolism that's over the top. My favorite was having the heroine running through a cemetery filled with white crosses on her way to the prison to try to stop an execution. Then there's the camera going topsy-turvy (to represent life or even justice being turned on its head) and various series of near subliminal words being flashed on the screen at pivotal moments (to get the director's point across about how he feels about the subject).

Beyond the heavy-handedness that permeates the entire production, the film is plagued by all sorts of other problems. For starters, there are only so many ways to tell this sort of tale. There's the inmate is guilty angle where an outsider wants to save his or her life and/or soul. Conversely, there's the plot where the inmate is innocent and needs help in proving that and getting a stay of execution.

Parker and Randolph have opted for the third option where the outsider and thus the viewer must decide whether the inmate is innocent or guilty. That usually involves making the outsider (and viewer) reexamine their stance on the issue, but the point is moot here since Parker blatantly tells us how to feel.

The problem with the mystery story is that it's difficult to stay ahead of viewers who are now increasingly savvy in figuring out the surprises, revelations and endings of such stories. Such is the case here where the average viewer will likely figure out the ending and "big surprise" long before they occur. That's particularly true since the clues are far too obvious and the red herrings are all but absent.

A "Rashomon" type approach would have helped where various individual perspectives would have clouded and complicated matters and thus helped veil the outcome. Unfortunately, that does not occur, resulting in both the outsider -- Kate Winslet ("Iris," "Titanic") - and viewer having to accept what the inmate says at face value.

Another problem is that the particular twist here becomes increasingly preposterous once it's figured out and/or revealed. While it's somewhat intriguing in premise, the way it's been written and executed makes it seem far more ludicrous than shocking, let alone believable.

Equally disappointing is that Winslet's character - initially described as Mike Wallace with PMS (now there's a visual) - too easily and quickly accepts the inmate's story. Perhaps that's because he's played by Kevin Spacey ("The Shipping News," "K-PAX") who has a way of portraying disarming credibleness. Whatever the case, Winslet's character is reduced to playing private detective in figuring out what others before her couldn't.

She's helped by an enormous amount of convenient developments and contrivances that similarly permeate the overall effort. They include, but certainly aren't limited to various shady or questionable characters - namely Matt Craven ("Dragonfly," "Paulie") and Leon Rippy ("Eight Legged Freaks," "The Patriot") - and their actions; a secondary assistant -- Gabriel Mann ("The Bourne Identity," "Abandon") - who's only present as a sounding board and catalyst for discoveries (the towel on the motel room floor inspiration would make Sherlock Holmes proud); as well as the standard car that breaks down at the wrong moment (that leads to what must be a several mile run to the prison without breaking a sweat).

Spacey, Winslet and Laura Linney ("The Mothman Prophecies," "You Can Count on Me"), who appears in flashback before becoming the pivotal victim, are all terrific performers. They certainly try their best to make something of the material and their characters. Unfortunately, the film's various insurmountable problems overwhelm them and their efforts.

With some script fixes and a far more subtle approach, this could have been an effective and thought-provoking dramatic thriller. As it stands, it feels like too much of a sanctimonious sermon, and a sloppy one at that. "The Life of David Gale" rates as just a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed February 21, 2003 / Posted February 21, 2003

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