With a bazillion “Law & Order” spin-offs on TV and tons of generic courtroom thrillers on the big screen every year, there’s not a lot of room left to reinvent the legal drama these days. So it is all the more impressive when a film comes along that manages to combine the genre’s tried-and-true formulas into a cohesive and engrossing picture.
On one hand, “Fracture” features the classic conflict of a young lawyer caught in a moral jam. Lowly state prosecutor Willy Beachum (Ryan Gosling, coming off of his recent Oscar nomination) has to choose between his new job as a defense lawyer for the uber-rich or taking his last chance to put a guilty man in prison. If you’re not sure which he’ll choose, then you haven’t seen very many movies. What is interesting is that, at first, the decision comes from his ego and not out of any desire to do good.
However, the movie’s other main element is the one that works best. Anthony Hopkins (doing a darkly comic variation on his Oscar-winning role as Hannibal Lecter) plays Ted Crawford, a brilliant engineer who finds structural flaws in airplanes. After confessing to shooting his adulterous wife in the head, his trial seems like an open-and-shut case. Crawford is as ice cold a bastard as you’ve seen, and his careful premeditation has ensured that he’ll get more pleasure out of trying to evade conviction than he did from putting his wife in a coma.
The screenplay, by Daniel Pyne and Glenn Gers, is cunning in its simplicity. It lays out a vicious game of cat-and-mouse between Beachum and Crawford, but never goes overboard with melodrama. “Fracture” smartly sets its boundaries and sticks to them—getting more complicated when personal relationships taint the only hard piece of evidence against Crawford. Soon, everything hinges on one missing piece of the puzzle.
As Crawford and Beachum match wits, there is plenty of unexpected gallows humor to keep us entertained. Sure, you must suspend disbelief to keep from wondering why somebody as smart as Crawford would ever confess in the first place—but there is plenty to distract you from the nagging details.
“Fracture” may be the first time in recent memory that a victim has been the punchline to this many jokes since “Weekend at Bernie’s.” Not that anyone is literally dragging the woman’s body around, but the callous contempt and utter disregard that Crawford shows for the wife that he himself has shot is alarming. Hopkins doesn’t exactly create a believable character, but he is devilishly funny, almost a dialed-down version of Al Pacino’s Satan in “The Devil’s Advocate.”
Director Gregory Hoblit mined similar territory in 1996’s “Primal Fear,” which resulted in a surprise Oscar nomination for a then unknown Edward Norton. This time around, Hoblit has chosen to showcase the naturalistic acting talents of Gosling, who manages to create a likable guy out of a cocksure stereotype. With Gosling in the role, it is easy to see how Beachum conned his way into a big-time law firm. It is also easier to swallow the giant leap he later makes when he inevitably must fight for honor.
Impeccable cinematography and sleek set design highlight the world of Crawford and the rich law firm, which is in stark contrast to Beachum’s run-down house and the D.A.’s office. The image that sticks in mind the most, though, is of Hopkins—a cold-as-ice engineer rolling a gold metal ball down a Rube Goldberg-like track. Quickly moving around all the different curves, it eventually lands safely—right where it’s supposed to—just like the cleverly-plotted script of “Fracture.”