Oh. My. God. Somebody actually made Habeas Corpus. You know, the “serious” Hollywood film about the death penalty — the one that, if we’re gonna be honest about it, really isn’t even a Hollywood film at all — in which someone white and smart and well-off is sentenced to execution, because “that happens.” You know, the movie that Robert Altman used in The Player to satirize the Hollywood liberal sanctimony that puts a pretty gloss on tough social issues and throws out even the veneer of progressiveness if the bottom line is threatened. Though if CNN is starting to sound more like The Onion these days, there’s no reason why mere entertainment shouldn’t move beyond satire, either.
The Life of David Gale is perfect counterprogramming for the run-up to the Oscars. Anyone who doesn’t want to endure a downer like Adrien Brody starving to death in Nazi-occupied Warsaw but still wants to feel like they’re watching an “important” film now has this option. It’s about capital punishment, after all, right? It must be an “important” film. And it stars Kevin Spacey, who is still pretending to be an “important” actor. He plays crazy/philosophical people in noncomedies. He stars in films based on literary novels about rural unconventionals. He refuses to talk about his personal life on chat shows. Surely, this is a Real Actor.
It’s the fascinating roles that earned Spacey that reputation — and the knowledge that those roles don’t seem to interest him anymore — that help David Gale on its path to sheer irrelevance. As university philosophy professor and anti-death-penalty activist David Gale, Spacey stares out from behind prison-visiting-room glass in a mocking parody of the intensity that characterized his performances in, say, L.A. Confidential or The Usual Suspects. He smirks at Kate Winslet’s (Quills, Titanic) newsmagazine reporter — and I won’t even go to the place in which I complain at length about being forced to watch this go-girl actor playing a character named “Bitsey” like she’s your maiden great-aunt or something — begging her to tell his story, imploring her to believe his claims of innocence, egging her, ever so sneakily, into doing her own investigation of the crime in the mere days before his scheduled execution. Did he really rape and murder Constance Hallaway (Laura Linney: The Mothman Prophecies, The House of Mirth), his friend and fellow activist? Oh, the irony if he did! Oh, the irony if he didn’t!
Bitsey — *sigh* — Bitsey may not know what to make of him, but we can’t trust him, not with that Verbal Kint glint in his eye. Spacey’s been trading on Kint and Jack Vincennes and Lloyd Chasseur and Mel Profitt for years, dragging us back to the multiplexes, hoping against hope that we’re gonna see him be Great again. And instead we get Pay It Forward Or The Life of David Gale. And if we can’t trust Spacey, we can’t trust Gale.
But that mistrust is, perhaps, intended on the part of director Alan Parker (Angela’s Ashes) and first-time screenwriter Charles Randolph. Because this isn’t a drama about the rights and wrongs and morality or immorality of the death penalty — this is a flick that’s supposed to have mass appeal, and exploring whether, say, a poor black man who committed the crime for which he has been sentenced to death actually deserves a needle in the arm is not the makings of a Saturday evening out. We’ll only take this heavy stuff if it’s popcorn-y, if it doesn’t tax the mind or spirit too much, if it’s fun: Please don’t reveal the secret ending to your friends!
So just as Hollywood can reduce most other serious issues to roller coasters, so here is the matter of capital punishment turned into a beat- the- clock thriller, one that uses the issue as mere window dressing and, in the end, when all is revealed, betrays even its own low ambitions. The restrictions Gale places on Bitsey’s telling of his story contradict his very reason for telling the tale, and we’re left, after it’s all played out, wondering what the hell the point of any of it was in the first place.