Anyone who can credibly threaten to steal a movie from Anthony Hopkins has seriously got it going on. Fracture (New Line Cinema) may be remembered as the movie that brought Ryan Gosling into the mainstream (just as Primal Fear, director Gregory Hoblit’s 1996 feature debut, introduced audiences to a young Edward Norton). Gosling’s wily delivery and loose-limbed charm are already familiar to those who caught his Oscar-nominated performance in last year’s indie film Half Nelson, as well as to the female fans who swooned over the 2004 romantic drama The Notebook. But casting Gosling opposite Hopkins in a big-budget legal thriller is clearly Hollywood’s way of saying, “Here he is folks: the next big thing.”
Gosling and Hopkins don’t disappoint, even if the movie does. I honestly can’t tell you whether the story of Fracture makes any sense or not—I’m pretty sure not—because somewhere along the way I gave up on following the ostensibly mind-boggling plot and just thrilled to the visible electricity between the two male leads. Hopkins plays Ted Crawford, a fancy aeronautical engineer of some kind—what he does is never exactly clear, but all you need to know is that he’s rich and smart. In the opening 10 minutes, it’s established that Crawford’s wife, Jennifer (Embeth Davidtz), is cheating on him, that Crawford knows it, and that, after spying on her at a hotel with her lover (Billy Burke), he waits for her to come home and shoots her point-blank in the face. Crawford then calls the cops, calmly confesses to the crime, and waits to be arrested. This is one of those thrillers that shows you the crime up front (or even earlier; the ubiquitous poster for Fracture features Hopkins’ face beneath the tag line “I Shot My Wife”), then spends the next two hours fucking with your interpretation of what happened.
One of the first twists is that Crawford hasn’t, in point of fact, committed murder: His wife remains in a coma on life support. The second is that he insists on representing himself in court and, thanks to an unusually indulgent judge, gets to pick his own prosecutor: a rumpled assistant district attorney by the name of Willy Beachum (Gosling). Beachum, an office star with a 97 percent conviction rate, has just accepted a job offer from a cushy private firm. The Crawford case will be his last as a state employee, and it looks like such a shoo-in—complete with a signed confession, for God’s sake—that Beachum is already mentally choosing the furniture for his swanky new office. But Beachum has no idea whom he’s dealing with. (Apparently he never saw TheSilence of the Lambs.)In his first interview with the defendant, he’s distracted, arrogant, and sloppy. Crawford spins a protracted metaphor about candling eggs at his grandfather’s farm, the point of which is clear: He can spot weakness a mile off, and he’s got Beachum’s number.
The legal plot is driven by a mystery: What happened to the missing murder weapon? But Fracture isn’t a procedural thriller that’s obsessed with forensics and crime-scene walk-throughs. The primary locus of action is inside Beachum’s head, where his hunger for material success (his Okie accent suggests a working-class background) conflicts with a growing sense of moral outrage. At first, Crawford’s O.J.-like ability to slip through legal loopholes is an affront only to Beachum’s hubris. But after a humiliating day in court and a dressing-down from the district attorney (the impeccable David Strathairn), Beachum begins to care less about winning than about justice.
Meanwhile—this is the kind of crammed movie that has a lot of meanwhiles—Nikki (Rosamund Pike), the icy attorney who will be Beachum’s supervisor at his new firm, is taking him both to bed and to Thanksgiving dinner. The romance between these two not only makes no sense—why would anyone as bright as Beachum risk his new job by sleeping with his soon-to-be boss?—but it adds nothing to the story (except the chance to appreciate Rosamund Pike, whose slightly spaced-out sexiness recalls a young Jessica Lange). In another meandering subplot, Beachum secretly visits a comatose Jennifer in the hospital, reading aloud to her from Dr. Seuss. Narratively speaking, these scenes are pure filler, but Gosling is such an absorbing actor to watch that it’s hard to mind.
Ultimately, Fracture is a stylish piece of nonsense, with a final revelation that preens a little too much over its diabolical cleverness. Granted, I didn’t see the ending coming, but the characters should have—it’s a trap that would be obvious to any decent legal mind. The real revelation is the Gosling/Hopkins matchup, the duel between the Welsh King Kong and the new Canadian Godzilla. And here’s the most surprising part: It’s a draw.