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Dead Man Walking:
An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States

. "The Life of David Gale"

A murder mystery wrapped in a political agenda, this reporter-investigator drama contains twists and surprises formulated to disguise anti-death penalty ideas as desirable while ultimately condemning its extremist actions. It's too clever by half, and tends toward a misfire brought about by a too twisted misrepresentation of the truth behind the characters.

The real story doesn't begin at the beginning, craftily avoiding the revelation that would bring down the drama. Instead, we pick it up when reporter Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet), the toast of NY journalism at the moment because of her recent stand on not revealing sources for a story, is chosen by death row inmate David Gale (Kevin Spacey), through his southern-smarmy lawyer Braxton Belyeu (Leon Rippy), to conduct 2-hour interviews for the three days prior to his execution.

After three years on death row refusing interviews, this one is seen by the newspaper as worth plenty, and they agree to a payment of half a million dollars for the privilege. During the one-on-one sessions in the prison interview room, Gale, an ex-philosophy professor at a major Texas university, narrates his story which we see in flashback. Step by step it convinces a doubting Bitsey completely of his innocence of the 1994 rape and murder of his friend and colleague Constance Hallaway (Laura Linney), with whom he worked in the leadership of a vocal and hyperactive death penalty organization.

With approximately 66% of the American population in favor of the death penalty, and with such groups' inability to produce a change in that statistic, Gale's group's desire is to produce evidence that innocent people are being put to death in the name of justice. That is what this movie is about. You don't have to be on one side of the equation or the other to become wrapped up in the drama, though its flawed but cleverly designed outcome is going to seriously disturb some.

Another of the film's virtues is the acting, starting with the solid delivery by Spacey ("The Shipping News", "American Beauty"), one of the most dependable actors on the scene. He takes us through his smooth and articulate teaching lectures (echoes of his classroom in "Pay it Forward"), his intensity of involvement in the death penalty cause and the methodical control and weakness of a condemned man -- all with emotional and intellectual precision.

Kate Winslet's confrontation with the man at a cool observer's remove, which becomes a committed sympathizer's championing and attempted rescue, with a clean American accent from a British subject is a high point in exposing her natural personna after roles that have tended to mask it. Her no-nonsense, down-to-earth energy is highlighted by a level of intelligence that serves her well in this context.

Laura Linney's modest methodology in pursuing her character's dream of making a difference on the battlefield of death penalty issues while combatting her own physical demons is a study in character subtlety and commitment. It's a supporting role for this splendid actress, to whom self-suppression is a complete and vital art, so well established in the unforgettable "You Can Count on Me."

It's this woman's motivations that inspire the choices of David Gale which prove to turn expectations around, reversing roles and motives, challenging assumptions and, at the hands of director Alan Parker ("The Commitments", "Angela's Ashes"), making for a most complex mystery and a last scene exposure of the unexpected.

Here, the ultimate message of the movie becomes clear. While clever in its manipulation of our involvement and feelings, the aftertaste of resentment is hard to avoid. The literary subterfuge explains its almost universally wretched critical reactions. The audience is double crossed, which allows the distaste for the message poison the better accomplishments of the enterprise. Only when you put aside your feeling of let down and betrayal might you consider the carefully controlled and executed performances, as well as a script that might be guilty of overreach but is essentially pro and effective.

The ending will cause you to recycle what has been previously seen, and to redigest it to reach an understanding. But however damning it may be, it's not likely to change whatever opinion you hold on the death penalty.

The tagline is: "The crime is clear. The truth is not." To "get it", pay strict attention.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Kevin Spacey telling his story to Kate Winslet

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