Those on the left still irked by Michael Moore’s oafishly immodest case for gun control—wait till you see Alan Parker and Kevin Spacey head-butt the death penalty! Not that The Life of David Gale ends up challenging much besides viewer trust and basic common sense. Spacey’s title character, an Austin, Texas, philosophy prof, is on death row for the rape and murder of his colleague and fellow anti-capital-punishment campaigner Constance (Laura Linney). With less than a week until execution, he grants an exclusive interview to Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet), star reporter at, ahem, News magazine (stand back, Kate Hudson—the assignment here is “How to Redeem a Guy in Four Days”). Structured around pane-glass tête-à-têtes between Spacey (passive-aggressive smugness on tap) and the impressively straight-faced Winslet, the movie parcels out Gale’s backstory in a series of flashbacks, each one cued by a helpful eruption of ominous title cards (“Pain,” “Honor,” “Martyrs,” etc.) and a gyroscopic camera freak-out.
We find out that Gale’s troubles began soon after a lecture on Lacan and objects of desire. An expelled grad student seduced the author of Dialogical Exhaustion into rough sex over a bathroom sink and then accused him of rape. His wife abandoned him, taking their only child. He then grew intimate with the brittle Constance, whose problems put his in a new light. Evidently armed with zero prior knowledge of the case, the lachrymose Bitsey is at once convinced of Gale’s innocence. Things get nasty when a video of Constance’s final moments is dropped off at Bitsey’s motel. It’s indicative of Parker’s unhealthy fascination with this little snuff movie that his journalist heroine should, at a pivotal moment, feel compelled to re-enact it, complete with cuffs, duct tape, and trash bag.
Cruder even than Parker’s Mississippi Burning, the film takes the obligatory pot shots at the Texas governor, a fount of homespun imbecility (Michael Crabtree, cast with the real-life inspiration in mind). Bitsey’s 11th-hour sprint to the execution chamber plays like a spoof of the spoof in The Player, and the finale is so severely concussed—not to mention dialogically exhausted—that it nullifies its own rhetoric several times over. Going through the motions of a liberal-Hollywood polemic with the sweaty, mounting hysteria of a bad liar, The Life of David Gale is foremost an overheating gotcha machine, scripted by first-timer Charles Randolph with seams showing and red herrings stinking up the joint. The bait-and-switch extends to political posturing. By the time Parker is done servicing his star’s martyr complex and clocking the audience with the last of the eminently foreseeable reversals, the film has thoroughly discredited activism as the domain of crazed zealots.
Another mystery that gives up its secrets all too quickly, Till Human Voices Wake Us is named for a T.S. Eliot line—and it proves a woefully evocative title for this snoozy supernatural pastoral. “There are two types of forgetting: passive and active,” notes Guy Pearce in the opening scene, and he ought to know, though as Pearce vehicles go, the musty New Age whiff of Australian director Michael Petroni’s debut feature evokes The Time Machine more than Memento. Returning to his rural hometown to bury his father, Pearce’s introverted psychiatrist Sam meets a vaguely goth amnesiac (Helena Bonham Carter looking like, uh, death) and has flashbacks to a tragically brief teenage romance. Originally a linear diptych, jazzed up with chronological flip-flops for U.S. release, the film is bold enough to invoke Vertigo, and also lazy enough to resort to watery-grave romanticism (HBC, incidentally, played Ophelia in Zeffirelli’s Hamlet). Exorcizing his ghosts by literally fucking the pain away, Sam remembers why he forgets; for the viewer, passive forgetfulness remains the most likely option.