The Life of David Gale

If your movie has a surprise twist in it, you should not trumpet that fact loudly in your advertising, the way Universal has done with “The Life of David Gale.” It acts as a challenge to the audience, practically daring them to spot the twist before it occurs, thus ruining the effect you intended it to have on them.

The exception, of course, is if the twist is so ingenious that even people looking for it can’t find it until you reveal it to them. But that’s not the case with “David Gale.” The director, Alan Parker (“Evita,” “Angela’s Ashes”), doesn’t have the finesse to play things on the down-low, and the screenplay by first-timer Charles Randolph drops hints awkwardly.

Though I am apparently very dumb and couldn’t quite piece it together until 15 minutes before the secret was revealed, the three critics and one civilian sitting nearest me had it a full hour before. (In my own defense, I was trying NOT to ruin the movie for myself … and I still had it a quarter-hour before the movie wanted me to.)

But this is counter-productive. All this talk is probably making you MORE eager to see the movie, not less. And it’s not that you shouldn’t see it; it’s that you shouldn’t be excited about seeing it. It’s an average movie of average intellect with mostly average acting, but with below-average skill at presenting its message.

The message is that the death penalty is wrong. In the movie, the people who disagree with that notion are Texas rednecks, and the ones who agree are the good guys, with Yankee accents. One of them is even a huge opera buff, just to show you how civilized he is.

Among the biggest abolitionists in Texas is David Gale (Kevin Spacey) who of course is a transplant and therefore does not have the local accent, and who at the film’s beginning has been convicted of murder and is sentenced to die. Cruel irony, that the state’s leading anti-death penalty advocate is about to become a victim of it.

But of course something is fishy, and Gale has requested an exclusive interview with no-nonsense news reporter Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet) just prior to his execution. Bitsey has a lot to learn. She is a Northerner, and very well educated — but tragically, she still thinks the death penalty is OK. “Maybe he’s innocent,” her boss says of Gale. “Yeah, right,” is her derisive reply. Surely she will learn a mighty lesson before film’s end!

Accompanied by an intern who does not serve any purpose in the movie, Bitsey heads to Texas, where Gale tells his story: After a trumped-up rape charge that was dropped, his life fell into disrepair. Then fellow abolitionist Constance Hallaway (Laura Linney), who had a strained platonic relationship with Gale, turned up raped and murdered. The physical evidence was damning, and Gale was convicted of the crimes. Now he will die, though he maintains his innocence.

In a manner not unlike that of Scooby-Doo’s friends, Bitsey and the intern (Gabriel Mann) snoop around for clues, leading to the aforementioned unsurprising surprise ending. Along the way, they encounter one sinister figure after another, and more videotapes than a Blockbuster employee.

The dialogue is occasionally sharp, but often forced, as when Bitsey makes “astute” observations like, “Never eat at a restaurant where the menus have pictures of the food,” and “Coincidences are always weird. That’s why they’re coincidences.”

In the acting department, we have solid performances from solid actors, but nothing spectacular. The closest thing we get to emotionally gripping is Laura Linney’s rather brave turn as Constance — an interesting character who doesn’t get enough chance to be herself before the movie is done with her.

I have no problem with the politics of this movie, nor of pretty much any movie, regardless of whether I agree with them. My only concern as a critic is how the politics are conveyed. Even if I were a rabid anti-death penalty crusader, I would not be impressed by the high and mighty histrionics put on display in this film. Those who do not already agree with the movie are not likely to change their minds after seeing the inelegant and ham-fisted arguments presented here. It’s a film with decent ideas, but a weak execution.

C+ (2 hrs., 10 min.; R, a lot of harsh profanity, some sexual vulgarity, some very strong sexuality, abundant non-sexual nudity.)