Running time 112 minutes
Directed by Gregory Hoblit
Written by Daniel Pyne and Glen Gers
Starring Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Gosling
Thrillers are crowding the marquees with such velocity that there seems to be two or three new ones every Friday. Most are no more thrilling than staring at an ant farm, and this is what makes Fracture—an exceptionally suspenseful nail-biter—seem doubly rewarding. Director Gregory Hoblit, who helmed the riveting 1996 psychological thriller Primal Fear, is someone whose work I usually admire, and screenwriter Daniel Pyne wrote the gripping script for John Schlesinger’s masterful Pacific Heights. They are above-average stylists who specialize in crime dramas with plot surprises and twist endings. Together, they turn Fracture into a watchable and satisfactory (although ultimately credibility-challenged) thriller that is worth seeing. You’ll ask questions later.
The crowded narrative parallels the self-assured arrogance of two men on opposite sides of the law: a fiendish murderer (Anthony Hopkins) and a brilliant young attorney (Ryan Gosling) who tries vainly to prosecute him. In a cleverly constructed cat-and-mouse battle of wills, suspense centers on which cat has the sharpest claws. Mr. Hopkins has wasted his time (and ours) on so many bad movies that he no longer holds the kind of rapt attention he once did, and in Fracture he’s overwhelmed by the fascinating, resourceful Mr. Gosling, but they both give their acting chops enough of a workout to make a bystander sweat bullets.
Mr. Hopkins plays an aging structural designer (whatever that is) with a much younger, cheating wife. “Knowledge is pain,” he confesses, and riddles her with bullets. Mr. Gosling is the ambitious, upwardly mobile lawyer in the district attorney’s office on the eve of a new job with one of L.A.’s most prestigious firms, who is reluctantly assigned the task of prosecuting him. It seems like a no-brainer. There’s a murder weapon, a confession made to the cop who was summoned to the crime scene, and a defendant who, although inexperienced, insists on representing himself in court. Easy. The cocky lawyer can take over his new office by the weekend. Then one thing after another goes wrong, until Mr. Gosling is up to his buzz cut in snafus. While the two men try to outwit each other in court, the millionaire’s victim-wife clings to life in an I.C.U. unit, the evidence to convict turns out to be inconclusive (no fingerprints, no bloody clothes and a murder weapon that has never been fired), and the chief prosecution witness (the cop who confiscated the gun from the killer at the time of his confession) is revealed by the defendant to be his wife’s lover! As the humiliated Mr. Gosling searches for the right gun and tries vainly to save his reputation, his plush new job goes up in smoke, the D.A.’s office is publicly embarrassed, his career is in jeopardy, and the open-and-shut case gets more unpredictable by the day. Mr. Hopkins goes free on a technicality and heads for his wife’s hospital room to unplug her respirator, but Fracture doesn’t end there. Another murder, a suicide, a forensics disclosure, a revealing videotape and an overlooked paragraph in the law books about “double jeopardy” lead to a shocking conclusion. You’ll know you’ve been to the movies, although there are times when this movie seems like a two-hour special of L.A. Law.
I won’t give away any state secrets, but frankly, the twists that unravel in the final 10 minutes are a great deal less than convincing. The holes in logic look like a New York street after a January blizzard. Mr. Hopkins is not just a psycho, but an extremely Machiavellian psycho. With his blue eyes at half-mast, darting like a snapping turtle in the afternoon California sun, he looks so much like Dr. Hannibal Lecter that you almost expect him to order fava beans. Mr. Gosling is not just a lawyer, but an unwisely overconfident one. Watching him move down a notch from condescending, know-it-all insolence to confused and desperate humility without ever becoming a toady is one of the film’s most resounding triumphs of characterization. The two stars play off each other like chess finalists, with distinguished support from David Straithairn, Rosamund Pike, Embeth Davidtz, Fiona Shaw, Bob Gunton and Billy Burke. Fracture is an inventive puzzle that glues together the sum of its fragments effectively, even if master puzzleheads are likely to figure it out before the players do.