As a harbinger of things to come, the brazenly ridiculous death-penalty drama The Life Of David Gale opens with a character running on foot to free an innocent man moments before his execution–a cliché so ripe that it was parodied in Robert Altman's Hollywood satire The Player. But for all the sequence's haphazardness, it still marks one of the few occasions that Gale indicts capital punishment with any sort of moral clarity; the rest of the time, the film gets so mired in red herrings, sucker twists, and other plot holes that it trivializes the issue at hand. Originally intended for Oscar season, then tabled for obvious reasons, Alan Parker's histrionic laugher baits with provocative and divisive subject matter, only to switch to a sleazy, exploitative whodunit with a conclusion that not only betrays Parker's characters, but also fatally undermines his cause. (In sizzle-happy Texas, anti-death-penalty activists are already burd ened enough without any help from a movie that makes them look like desperate, unscrupulous fools.) Before collecting an Oscar for American Beauty, Kevin Spacey excelled at playing arrogant weasels, but earnestness hasn't served him well lately, either as an idealist (Pay It Forward) or as a broken man (The Shipping News). With damning statistics in one hand and a bottle of scotch in the other, Spacey fumbles both as an Austin university professor and as a leading Death Watch activist who's sitting on death row for the rape and murder of his friend and fellow traveler Laura Linney. For a $500,000 exclusive, he summons magazine journalist Kate Winslet on his last week alive and dictates his story for posterity, proclaiming his innocence in spite of a mountain of evidence to the contrary. Skeptical at first, Winslet entertains Spacey's conspiracy theories, which begin with a former student who framed him for rape and promptly dropped the charges, after ruining his marriage, his career, and his reputation. Claiming he was softened for the fall, Spacey hints at a shadowy group of political enemies who would like nothing more than to see the ironic demise of a leading death-penalty opponent. Winslet's keen investigative instincts don't keep her from being the last person in the theater to sort out the story, in spite of incriminating videotapes, a redneck stalker in a 10-gallon hat, and the use of leukemia as a deus ex machina. The biggest problem with The Life Of David Gale isn't the naked twist–which doesn't hold up under the slightest scrutiny anyway–but that it needs a twist at all. Parker, who shouldn't be allowed within 200 yards of an issue movie after Mississippi Burning and Come See The Paradise, wants to provoke thought on capital punishment and make The Usual Suspects at the same time. But the thriller part leaves so much open to question that it's difficult to remember what the movie is really about.