Death Row Double-Cross

Slapping itself to death with red herrings, convoluted bleeding-heart propaganda and contrived plot maneuvers so confusing even Brian De Palma would have ordered a rewrite, The Life of David Gale is one strange movie. Still, I found most of it mesmerizing. Its flaws are many, and like so many movies do these days, it literally falls apart in the final 10 minutes and chokes on its own bathos, but it certainly doesn’t deserve the critical caning it’s getting. With Kevin Spacey, Kate Winslet and Laura Linney in the leads, the estimably capable Alan Parker directing, and an indictment of capital punishment I heartily applaud as the theme, how bad can it be? Unlike most of the junk we’ve been getting since the new movie season began, at least it’s about something !

Curiously, the thing that ruined this movie for me is the secret in the plot everything else leads up to. It’s the revelation at the end, and I won’t tell you about it for fear of spoiling it for everyone else. For a born blabbermouth, I can’t tell you how irritating and frustrating this is. But I will tell you that for most of this film’s 130 minutes, boredom is not an option. Disguised as a taut mystery thriller, The Life of David Gale has loftier goals. They’re a long time coming. Meanwhile, Kevin Spacey gives one of his most compelling performances in the title role. David Gale is a brilliant author and professor of philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin and a passionate activist in DeathWatch, an organization working to abolish the death penalty. Through the irony of fate, this loving husband and father, revered academic and impassioned liberal ends up convicted of raping and murdering his colleague, fellow faculty member and best friend, Constance Harraway (Laura Linney)-a shocking crime without motive, of which he insists he is innocent. With all appeals exhausted and the governor he once humiliated in a televised debate turning a deaf ear to his plea for a stay of execution, Professor Gale agrees to a series of three two-hour interviews with an aggressive journalist from a national news magazine named-first mistake-Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet). When she arrives on death row for their first meeting, Bitsey feels instant compassion (she’s spent some time behind bars herself, protecting sources on a kiddie-porn story that made headlines) and is convinced he’s been framed. But why? And by whom? Is David Gale the innocent victim of an extraordinary chain of events, or a clever killer who uses her publication to pay him handsomely for last-minute fame and fortune? The evidence against him is damning (his semen was found in the victim’s body, and a tape of the woman’s nude body has surfaced) but with only four days left before his execution, she sets out to solve the case and win him his freedom (and maybe a Pulitzer for journalism). The story unfolds in the professor’s version of the facts, shown in flashbacks, and through Bitsey’s tireless research, which makes her and her assistant Zack (the excellent Gabriel Mann) the victims of a mysterious stalker in a cowboy hat and a menacing pickup truck.

Up to this point in the plot trajectory, The Life of David Gale is gripping, cogent and super-intelligent. The past relationship between Gale and Constance is particularly well-defined. The intimacy and decency of their mutual caring, sympathy and friendship is heartbreakingly real, and David Gale’s tragic downward spiral, after his wife deserts him and takes his son to Italy to escape the scandal, demonstrates the craft of a fine actor at the peak of his skills. Mr. Parker’s eclectic career has produced everything from Midnight Express to Evita with varying degrees of success and failure, but he’s so meticulous that he can still make you clutch the edge of your seat with sweaty palms and inspire you think-simultaneously. Charles Randolph’s screenplay is so literate and juicy I found myself jotting down certain lines to quote later. I wish the two actresses had exchanged roles: Ms. Winslet would have made a better plain-Jane spinster activist, and Ms. Linney’s beauty would have made for a more charismatic Nancy Drew. Still, a helluva thriller lurks inside this movie itching to get out, and you can’t wait to see what happens next, or what really happened in the first place.

Then it throws you a knuckle sandwich. With only a few hours before Mr. Spacey’s execution, Ms. Winslet’s detective work produces the edited parts of the complete videotape that can acquit him, but unlike Susan Hayward in I Want to Live! , David Gale doesn’t want to live. In a twist ending that makes you want to spit on the floor, The Life of David Gale is not about a wronged man at all, but about two left-wing intellectuals who martyr themselves to further their own liberal cause. The two professors have based their lives on ideals, compassion and even self-sacrifice, and in the end they pursue their values to death and beyond. There’s a big difference between an innocent victim and a self-styled martyr. The film ends with 10 minutes of philosophical moral ambiguity (the log of a man’s life and actions matters more than his ability to fit the prevailing standards of how society perceives him, etc.) that leave you angry and perplexed. What do you do with a film that could have been great but isn’t? The Life of David Gale is too smart to dismiss with a knee-jerk rejection, and too flawed to praise unconditionally. There’s much to admire here, but the disappointments are many. Grading on the curve, I give it high marks for trying something different, but somewhat lower ones for entertainment value.

Arachnophobia

With all of its problems, I’ll take the agit-prop of David Gale any day over the ghoulish pretentiousness of David Cronenberg’s Spider . Based on the sour, creepy little novel by Patrick McGrath, who also wrote the screenplay, this perverse study of insanity picks up where the author’s equally dolorous Asylum left off. A filthy, bedraggled creature with hollow eyes and jaundiced skin (Ralph Fiennes), clutching an ancient suitcase, arrives at Victoria Station on a cold, rainy day, babbling to himself in a voice so low only a dog can hear. His destination is a mournful rooming house for mental patients across the road from the gasworks, where the hatchet-faced landlady (Lynn Redgrave) draws him a tub of rusty bathwater. His name is Spider, and for the rest of the movie he writes down all of his memories in the form of hieroglyphics in a battered, peeling notebook while reliving them in corners of pubs and alleys. Something grotesquely unsettling happened to Spider when he was a boy, and I spent the entire movie dreading the moment when I’d have to find out what it was. Mr. Cronenberg delivers the dastardly details in lurid bits and pieces. Murder, corpses, fires-they emerge in the kind of mad, dreamlike fantasies for which the director of such horrors as Naked Lunch , Existenz and the vomitous Crash has become celebrated. With his morbid gift for dark perversion, Mr. Cronenberg has lost none of his pointless technique, but he is more in control here than in the deranged Crash , although that isn’t saying much. In Spider , Mr. Cronenberg’s decadent imagination runs amok visualizing the babblings of the eponymous schizophrenic, and Mr. Fiennes becomes as intensely foreign as an extraterrestrial. Obviously he was prematurely discharged from the asylum, for he roams the wet streets of London haunted by the past as the images return around every corner to torture him. What little plot there is has a decidedly Freudian focus: Convinced that his father (Gabriel Byrne) murdered his mother (Miranda Richardson) to replace her with his whorish girlfriend, Spider burns them all alive and spends the rest of his life like Renfield, the mad servant of Dracula.

Miraculously, Mr. Cronenberg spares us the sight of Spider eating flies. The nasty conclusion is inevitable, but before it all collapses in another tragic end for Spider, some terrific actors are given a rare opportunity to show their quirky side. With ferret eyes and a quivering, drooling mouth, obviously in need of medication, Ralph Fiennes shows the thin membrane separating reality from illusion in a world of thorazine. But it’s really Miranda Richardson who steals the movie, or what there is of it. Playing two roles-Spider’s demure, brunette mother of long ago and the peroxided slut with rotten teeth who seduced his father-she is bewitching and alive even in settings that would give Edgar Allan Poe hives. The brilliant cinematographer Peter Suschitzky has imagined an Edward Gorey atmosphere full of foreboding danger and black-cloaked phantoms peering through crumbling slum windows. But Mr. Cronenberg has no sense of humor, and Spider makes no real sense of any kind. What is the point of a gothic Edward Gorey riddle if it’s got all of the depression and none of the drollery?

Lost Cause

Finally, I will take all of the above over brainless crap with no imagination at all. Date flicks nobody believes but lovesick secretaries from Far Rockaway seem to be the newest rage-slash-fad. Following on the broken stiletto heels of Maid in Manhattan , Two Weeks Notice and Just Married comes the schematic and preposterous How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days . Kate Hudson, best known as Goldie Hawn’s daughter, plays a tough, vaginally obsessed columnist for a slick women’s magazine who has watched too many episodes of Sex and the City and thinks she’s Sarah Jessica Parker. Her assignment: to hook a man and drive him away by every cruel womanly trick in the book by her next deadline-10 days! The man she chooses for a victim is Matthew McConaughey, the kind of loathsome advertising executive who must have thought up the screeching voices of celebrities nobody ever heard of that pollute New York taxicabs when you’re in gridlock. He makes a bet he can win a big diamond account if he can charm a woman into falling in love with him in-you guessed it-10 days! They meet cute in one of those quaint Manhattan settings that only exist in the pages of Cosmopolitan : Sparks fly at a Knicks game. She tries to drive him away by filling his bachelor pad with stuffed toys from F.A.O. Schwarz, nicknaming his penis “Princess Sophia” and cramming his medicine cabinet with Vagisil. To win his bet, he has to pretend to like it. McConaughey’s character is from Staten Island, so why does he have a Texas accent? Let’s face it. He can’t act! And I can’t tell Kate Hudson from Katie Holmes. Ms. Hudson and Mr. McConaughey look miserable together, and you could get more chemistry from a sperm bank. How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days is more an exercise in how to lose an audience in 10 minutes.