THE POLITICAL agenda in "The Life of David Gale" is so embarrassingly unadorned, you'll swear you just got flashed.
An anti-death penalty screed disguised as a thriller, the story follows philosophy professor David Gale (Kevin Spacey), who's about to be executed in the bad ol' state of Texas for rape and murder.
David happens to be an activist for a nonprofit group that lobbies heavily against the death penalty. And the victim is Constance (Laura Linney), David's fellow worker. What goes on here? David has maintained his innocence from the get-go, but he lost the case thanks to an incompetent lawyer. Now he's due for his lethal dose Friday.
With time running out, he offers a series of three exclusive one-on-one interviews with investigative reporter Elizabeth "Bitsey" Bloom (Kate Winslet). She's his last chance to prove his innocence.
Bitsey's employers decide she should not attend these interviews alone. There should be a young man, like office intern Zack (Gabriel Mann), the kind of guy who'll bring younger audiences to this movie.
Protesting all the way, Bitsey drags Zack along. And they show up for the interview with the savvy, sophisticated, apparent killer. It's going to be one of those mental games of chess, she with the notebook and convinced he's guilty, he on the other side of the window, sizing up his prey. You keep waiting for him to say: Hello, Clarice.
But this ain't "Silence of the Lambs." It's just muttonhead entertainment from director Alan Parker and screenwriter Charles Randolph, for whom heavy-handedness amounts to telling argument.
David is supposed to seem like a checkered character, so Randolph gives him a drinking problem (first choice among all scriptwriters, it seems), marital trouble and a scene in which David is conned by an ex-student into a heavy-breathing quickie, only to see her turn around and falsely accuse him of rape. Later, the jury will see this incident as a precursor of the subsequent rape and killing for which David is ultimately convicted.
It takes Spacey's considerable talent to make his scenes even the slightest bit believable. But he can't save us from the rest of the movie: A gung-ho death-penalty-loving governor, digs at Dubya, sanctimoniously witty comments about the Lone Star state's prolific killing machine and Texans who constantly remind each other in daily conversation how right-wing, eccentric and gosh-darn southern they are. "David Gale" deserves the chair for its brutal assault on subtlety.
It's more than disconcerting, too, that a movie that wants to enlighten everyone about the barbarity of execution feels no compunction providing lurid details of a trussed, raped and suffocated victim. The only difference between this film and snuff porn is a matter of dramatic emphasis.
This being a "closed" thriller, in which all secrets are hid till the last moment, I don't want to reveal too much. But it doesn't take a card hustler to recognize the ace-in-the-sleeve punch line way ahead of time. And when you do, sooner or later, chances are you'll find yourself hating just about everybody except poor, clueless Bitsey.
THE LIFE OF DAVID GALE (R, 130 minutes) -- Contains graphic sexuality, nudity, violence and obscenity. Area theaters.