"If you look close enough, you'll find everyone has a weakness."
"Fracture," the 2007 courtroom thriller with Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Gosling, is like an anti-John Grisham story. You know how in the Grisham movies you're always rooting for the idealistic lawyer or law student, whether it's Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon, Matthew McConaughey, Chris O'Donnell, Matt Damon, or whomever, to be all noble defending an innocent client or pursuing an evil corporation or a corrupt corporate director. Well, here we don't have such clear-cut good guys and bad guys. In fact, for most of the movie, everybody is a bad guy. Which elevates the film above most of its rivals.
Hopkins' character is truly bad. He plays Ted Crawford, a brilliant and successful aeronautics engineer with a cunning mind, whose love of games and puzzles tells us a lot about him. When he discovers that his beautiful and much-younger wife Jennifer (Embeth Davidtz) is having an affair, he shoots her, point blank in the face, and then admits the deed to the police.
But neither life nor death is so simple.
The man who takes the case to prosecute Crawford is almost as unsympathetic as the accused. He's Willy Beachum (Gosling), a young, arrogant lawyer working in the Los Angeles District Attorney's office, a man on his way up in the world of law. He's in his last weeks as a city prosecutor, having sold his soul and accepted a position at a prestigious corporate law firm. He takes on the Crawford case at the last minute because it's such a slam-dunk, open-and-shut proposition. After all, the police found Crawford in his house, standing over the body of his wife with a gun in his hand, and then they got a confession from him!
Ah, but if only.... You see, Willy is in a hurry, and Crawford is a sly genius. The wife is in a coma and cannot testify against her husband. The gun the police find on Crawford has never been fired. And it turns out the confession the police obtained from Crawford was secured under duress. Worse, the arresting officer in the case, Detective Lt. Rob Nunally (Billy Burke), turns out to be the very man with whom Crawford's wife was having the affair.
Am I giving away too much? I don't think so. All of this happens very fast in the first quarter of the film. It sets up the film's central conflict, presenting us and the lawyer with a dilemma. Understand, Hopkins makes his character Crawford so diabolically clever and charming that it's hard actually to dislike him. And Gosling makes Willy so thoroughly haughty and overbearing, it's hard to cheer for him (the character has a 98% winning record in court, and he's damned proud of it). Crawford reminded me of the protagonist in Patricia Highsmith's "Tom Ripley" novels, an amoral murderer who nevertheless possesses such charisma that we can't help hoping he'll get away with whatever crime he's committing. I mean, Hopkins' Crawford puts such precise and daring detail into his plan, it seems almost unfair for him to lose.
And Gosling's Willy really is an ass, in whom, for reasons unknown, only his boss, District Attorney Joe Lubruto (David Strathairn), still has any faith. Willy is the sort of person whom we can see will do almost anything to get ahead, a character trait not lost on his new supervisor and girlfriend (Rosamund Pike), who appears to be about as ambitious and unfeeling as Willy is.
But when Crawford makes Willy look foolish in court, something that Willy has never experienced before, and it jeopardizes his chances with his new law firm, how will Willy react? Will he go after Crawford with renewed vigor just to get even and prove a point? Will he hang his head and try to make amends with his new bosses? Will he even continue in the field of law after what seems like a coming crushing defeat?
"Fracture" is a cat-and-mouse game of the best kind. We can always depend upon Hopkins to turn in a stellar performance, and while this one does not come close to his turn as Hannibal Lecter in "Silence of the Lambs," he does establish a devilishly engaging character, and his mannerisms, glances, and facial expressions are always fascinating. No, it's Gosling who is the x-factor here. Although he's been in several films that I've seen-- "Murder by Numbers," "Stay"--I couldn't remember much about him. Yet in "Fracture" he reminds me a lot of someone like Edward Norton in "Down in the Valley" or "The 25th Hour," where you're not quite sure about him, not quite certain you're on his side or ever will be because there's always something in the guy's personality, just under the surface, that makes him seem like there's more going on there than meets the eye, and it might not be very good.
Crawford finds Willy's character flaws, plays on his smugness, and designs every facet of his crime and his defense down to the finest element. Is it a matter of which man is the smartest? Which is the cleverest? Or which is the most careful?
The writers, Daniel Pyne and Glenn Gers, do a good job keeping the film from lapsing into too much pure melodrama, recognizing that a first-rate thriller must rely as much on cerebral engagements as on physical action, with the former dominating the latter by quite a margin. Don't expect blood, guts, or hand-to-hand combat; a gunshot is the single incident of violence in the picture. The only place the writers let us down is with the ending. We can see it coming far in advance, and it isn't quite the twist or shock that might have made audiences want to see the movie again. Then, too, there is an air of righteous moral indignation and character reversal that creep in at the last, making the film a little too Hollywood pat and predictable. Until then, though, the screenplay is fairly thoughtful and literate.
I also liked most of Gregory Hoblit's ("Primal Fear," "Fallen," "Hart's War") direction in the film. He doesn't let the script's lengthy conversations bog down the forward thrust of the story line, which could easily have happened in so dialogue-driven a movie as this. Instead, he develops the tension and suspense inherent in the words. What I didn't care for much, however, was Hoblit's penchant for flashy camera work--swirling shots, extreme wide-angle shots, excessive close-ups, and quick edits--that sometimes simply distracts from the goings on in the plot. A director has to know when enough is enough and when a good set of lines in the hands of a good set of actors is sufficient to carry the day.
In any case, "Fracture" is an above-average courtroom thriller that keeps afloat mainly because of the interaction of its two lead characters and the excellent acting of its two lead performers. While you might not leave the movie entirely satisfied, you won't have had a bad time with it, either.