'Fracture' is a cracking thriller

Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Gosling face off against each other in this film with a complex plot that holds up to close scrutiny.

By , Film critic

The advertisements for "Fracture" feature a large, impassive head shot of Anthony Hopkins, and of course we are meant to think "Hannibal Lecter." The shamelessness of the ads contrasts with the film itself, which is much smarter and less derivative than I anticipated.

Hopkins plays Ted Crawford, an engineer from Southern California who specializes in detecting structural flaws in aeronautical systems. This is a man who can literally spot a hairline flaw in an egg shell. His spacious luxury house is festooned with Rube Goldberg-like mechanical gizmos of his own invention.

Since Ted likes everything just so, he is understandably miffed upon learning his wife (Embeth Davidtz) is having an affair. So he confronts her at home and very calmly shoots her in the head. The hostage negotiator (Billy Burke) who shows up to disarm Ted just happens to be the wife's lover. Ted is arrested and confesses, but what looks like an open-and-shut case is anything but.

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That's because Ted, who insists on conducting his own defense, has been setting up his prosecutor, state's attorney Willy Beachum (Ryan Gosling), all along. He sizes up the young hot shot's weakness right away: He's too enamored of success.

Willy was on his way to a new job at an expensive corporate law practice when the district attorney (David Strathairn, in a too-brief appearance) asks him to take the case. Slam-dunk turns into smack down, and Willy is publicly humiliated – fractured. The rest of the film is about how he comes back.

Although much of this scenario seems overly familiar on the surface, director Gregory Hoblit and his screenwriters Daniel Pyne and Glenn Gers, keep things zipping along, and the cinematography by Kramer Morgenthau has a lush menace. The dialogue is unusually droll – when, for example, Willy shows up in court in a tuxedo en route to a society event, the presiding judge disparagingly refers to him as 007.

Hopkins and Gosling both clearly appreciate the high quality of badinage. Although Hopkins obviously has played a variation on this role before, his Ted is more playfully malevolent than Hannibal Lecter ever was. He's a cool customer with no visible cracks in his façade. In a way, he's his own best mechanical invention.

He doesn't fool Willy, though, which only adds to the prosecutor's mounting frustration. Willy is the first to recognize that Ted is setting everybody up. Ultimately, nailing him becomes Willy's crusade. He has to do the right thing, which, in the film's terms, is almost a contradiction in the sharky waters of lawyerdom.

And it's fun to see him stumble and sprint on his way to absolution. Gosling has been effective so far mostly in small independent films such as "Half Nelson," but he shows here that he can also carry a glossy Hollywood star vehicle with ease. There is a subplot involving Willy's prospective boss, a shiny blonde (Rosamund Pike), that doesn't really go anywhere interesting, and poor Embeth Davidtz, after her character is shot, spends all her screen time comatose.

On the other hand, the plot's many complications pretty much all add up, which is a rarity these days for a murder mystery. It's possible that audiences don't even care anymore if a film makes sense as long it's entertaining.

"Fracture" is both. Grade: A–

Rated R for language and some violent content.

Sex/Nudity: 3 instances of innuendo. Violence: 5 scenes, including a shooting. Profanity: 29 expressions, mostly strong. Drugs/Alcohol/Tobacco: 6 scenes with drinking.

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