Having lost his teaching career and family over the incident and seeing his high profile role in the politics of death penalty issues consequently disappear, he ends up accused of the rape and horrific murder of Constance Harraway (Laura Linney). Constance was David's fellow death penalty oppponent fanatic and best friend, the one who stood by him through thick and thin and helped him try to regain control of his life.
Tried and convicted for her rape and murder, David is ironically now an inmate on death row. He grants an ambitious reporter, Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet), an interview just days before his execution. As his story unfolds, revealed in a series of flashbacks leading to the final denouement, Bitsey begins to believe that David might truly be innocent. She begins to investigate and put together the pieces of the enigma that is David Gayle.
As a death penalty issues film, it fails, as the film paints both sides of this hot button issue in an unflattering light. It is definitely not a propaganda film and those looking for such will, inevitably, be disappointed. As a whodunit, it succeeds brilliantly, as the plot is complex and filled with enough twists and turns and red herrings to delight even the most jaded mystery aficionado.
The film is really not about the death penalty. It is, instead, about an unhappy man, who has lost all that he holds most dear, and a decision that he makes about what to do with the rest of his life. Right or wrong, it is a decision that fuels the film and makes for some gripping cinematic moments.
Kevin Spacey is terrific in the role of David Gayle, a man who went from being on top of the world to being at the bottom of the heap. He is a man who has lost all that he holds most dear, including a relationship his beloved young son, all because of a mistake in judgment that caused him to take the wrong fork in the road of life. It is the story of a man whose life has spiraled downward, and who has given in to despair. He uses his ideological commitment as succor, ultimately seeking absolution in martyrdom.
Laura Linney is excellent as David's devoted friend and fellow activist, who sticks by him through thick and thin. She infuses the role with a certain firmness of character and quiet dedication. Hers is an activism born of measured conviction in contrast to David's more flamboyant, confrontational stance on the issue for which they share a passion. Her own personal waterloo provides the film with some lovely bittersweet moments.
Kate Winslet handles her role as the intrepid reporter with great aplomb, providing the role with a nice contemporary feel and infusing the character with a respectable American accent. Despite all this, however, she takes a back seat to Spacey and Linney in the film. Matt Craven is perfectly cast as the mysterious Dusty Wright, the cowboy whose dedication to the anti-death penalty cause goes above and beyond the call of duty.
This is simply a film about a man and his life and the decisions that he makes, right or wrong, that drive it. This film now completes a magnificent triad of films about troubled men for gifted director Alan Parker (Angel Heart, Midnight Express).
Despite its being a whodunit, this is a film that one can certainly watch again and again due to its complexity. My twenty one year old daughter has watched it three times now and claims that it is one of her all-time favorite films. I myself would certainly watch it again and would add it to my personal collection. Bravo!
The story itself is wonderful, though I can tell you as someone who lived in Austin for six years that protests on the scale of those in the film never took place, especially not in front of the capitol building...but that's about the only thing that the film got wrong. The story is compelling, with an anti-death penalty activist on death row, awaiting lethal injection (Texas does NOT use the electric chair) and the tough, ballsy reporter who initially judges Gale the way everyone else does. The way he brings her around is fascinating and the bare truth with which he bares his soul to her...his story is not romanticized one iota. It's a great film, and one of the only films to come out of Hollywood recently that has not portrayed Texans as gun-happy zealots. Wonderful.