David Gale (Spacey) is a Texas death row inmate, former philosophy professor and anti-death penalty activist. Bitsey Bloom (Winslet) is the reporter he requests to conduct an interview in the last week of his life, before his execution for the rape and murder of his friend, colleague, and fellow activist Constance Harraway (Linney). About half of the film is a flashback as Gale describes the events leading up to his conviction, starting with a rape accusation by one of his students (Rhona Mitra), and claims his innocence. With the help of her intern Zack (Gabriel Mann), Bloom must figure out what really happened and whether Gale can—and should—be saved.
This film provides examples of:
- Acquitted Too Late: Gale's allies are trying to prevent this. At least, Bitsey Bloom is, but fails. His real plan is to cause this to happen as a political act to discourage the death penalty.
- All for Nothing: The governor had promised that if evidence of an innocent person executed ever surfaced he'd call a moratorium on capital punishment. Gale's death is set up as exactly this. However, the governor refuses to call a moratorium, saying the state can't be blamed for a plot by someone else.
- Artistic License History: During a drunken ramble, David says Socrates was sentenced to death for insulting the judges by, after he was convicted, suggesting as his punishment a fine of only thirty mina, comparing that to thirty bucks. In reality though, Apology of Socrates says he suggested a fine of a hundred drachma, soon raised to three thousand-a very substantial sum. Being a philosophy professor, David likely would be aware of this.
- Broken Aesop: One of the main criticisms of the film, as it turns out that whilst David isn't guilty of murder, he's not exactly 'innocent' either. See Clueless Aesop.
- Clear Their Name: David Gale's intention with the interview. Subverted in the end; his and his compatriots' actual plan is for Bloom to fail to clear his name until after his execution.
- Clueless Aesop: The film is very clearly against the death penalty, by trying to show that an innocent person can be executed. The problem is that rather than showing an innocent person who is a victim of circumstances or a frame-up it shows the victim actually wanting to get executed, and both him and the murder victim actively trying to make it happen, at which point it's not really an innocent victim of death penalty so much as assisted suicide. Even In-Universe this is acknowledged, as this is the reason the Governor refuses to call a moratorium and stop the death penalty as a result of Gale's case.
- Death Row
- False Rape Accusation: One of the reasons David loses his job as a college professor. A female student who was failing his course for not showing up for classes later meets him at a party, seduces him, and makes it look like he raped her so she can file rape charges against him. She doesn't even follow up on them since she has already left the country before it can go to trial, she just wanted to tarnish his reputation. It also makes him more plausible as a rapist and murderer later than otherwise he might be.
- Fan Disservice: Laura Linney has an extended nude scene. In which, as part of the whole plan to make her suicide look like murder, she undresses completely, ties a bag over her head, cuffs her wrists behind her back and duly suffocates to death. Her character's suffering from cancer at the time too, so her body is covered with unsightly red blotches.
- Intrepid Reporter: Bitsey does more than the usual journalist to solve the case.
- The Joy of X
- Karma Houdini: All of the people involved in Gale's/Constance's plot. They'd probably all claim I Did What I Had to Do, but it comes off more as Principles Zealot.
- Off the Record: Gale makes some comments during his interview that Bloom promises are off the record. Later, the final tape explaining the complete scheme to her is marked this way, implying that the knowledge may never reach the public.
- Pity Sex: Played with. When Constance reveals she's dying of leukemia, David asks if she has any regrets. She tells him she would have had more sex. When he asks how many partners she's had, she thinks, then holds up four fingers. He asks if she wants to "complete the hand." Her response is an incredulous "A pity lay?" He then tells her it wouldn't be pity. Not quite sex for solace, either. David seems to genuinely care for Constance, although she doesn't seem to be all that attracted to him. Perhaps the pity is on her part, as he's just been divorced and fired.
- Suicide, Not Murder: Linney's character, terminally ill, kills herself while making it look like murder as a part of the plan.
- Thanatos Gambit: Gale frames himself for a grisly murder so that he will be put to death while "innocent" and expose the flaws in the system.
- Well-Intentioned Extremist: What Gale and those involved in the plot ultimately are. While their goal is possibly a noble one, the methods they use to attempt to achieve it slide well over into Villain Protagonist with their horrifically abusive manipulation of the justice system and their intentional involvement of innocent bystanders to be complicit in their scheme.
- You Know Who Said That?: The film invokes Godwin's Law with this. The film revolves around a philosophy professor and political activist who is firmly against capital punishment. During a political debate, he baits his opponent like this:David Gale: So, basically, you feel, to choose another quote, 'society must be cleansed of elements which represent its own death.'Governor Hardin: Well, yes. I'd have to agree. Did I say that too?David Gale: No, that was Hitler.