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Lockdown: Kevin Spacey must fight his way off death row in 'The Life of David Gale.'

Gale Force

Death row suspense keeps 'The Life of David Gale' at the boiling point

By Traci Vogel

ALAN PARKER'S film roster reads like a chemistry textbook. Through a career that includes Angela's Ashes, Evita, Mississippi Burning, Angel Heart and even--early on--Pink Floyd--The Wall, Parker has proved adept at ascertaining the exact temperature at which blood boils. I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that he has the word "passion" tattooed on his bicep.

The British director's newest film, The Life of David Gale, fits right in with the rest of his work. It tells the story of its namesake, a philosophy professor and anti-death penalty activist played by Kevin Spacey who, as the movie opens, sits morosely in his last few days on death row himself, convicted of murdering a fellow activist named Constance. The irony of Gale's fate is only one of many twists in the movie, which navigates more 90-degree angles than a rat in a laboratory. In fact, Gale very much resembles a panicked rat, running full tilt through his paces as his life closes down around him. The movie lets him tell his own story, in a flashback narration to journalist Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet) that surfs back through time.

Gale's story seems to be one of entrapment: first by a steamy student, then by an academic rumor mill that condemns him as politically incorrect, if not legally guilty. When Gale's small son is endangered, Gale loses what self-control he possessed, careening into an alcoholic existence, sleeping in his car and showing up on Constance's patio unannounced. Ragged, defeated, he is a natural suspect when Constance turns up dead.

But as Bloom listens to Gale's story, she becomes increasingly convinced that there's more to the case than meets the eye, but where are the missing pieces? What is Gale's attorney hiding? And who's that backlit cowboy who keeps following her? As Bitsey Bloom, Winslet elevates her usual intensity, her face slowly evolving from a grimace of skepticism to a rictus of dread as she apprehends her position. As journalists often do, Bloom finds herself being used as a pawn in a game she has to scramble to understand, but the stakes are much higher than she is used to. Bloom and her intern drive desperately from clue to clue in a rental car whose "check engine" light gleams ominously, making connections a step too late and quaking with stress. The film treats the suspense genre like the adrenaline syringe it is, and Parker's sense of pacing is nearly Hitchcockian. A postcard, a videotape, the figure of the cowboy--these are all iconic elements of mystery, just anonymous enough to evoke horror, not specific enough to give away the ending. And like that tease of a movie The Sixth Sense, The Life of David Gale has a surprise ending friends will not tell friends. Suffice to say the ending proves Parker's evident theorem: that passion is the reason for most anything to exist, and to cease existing.

The Life of David Gale (R; 130 min.), directed by Alan Parker, written by Charles Randolph, photographed by Michael Seresin and starring Kevin Spacey and Kate Winslet, opens Friday at selected theaters valleywide.

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From the February 20-26, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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