Cheri Oteri

An open-and-shut case becomes an elegantly framed battle of wits in "Fracture," an absorbing legal thriller that can't help but taste like exquisitely reheated leftovers. Result is a smooth, proficient but curiously bloodless entertainment to which older viewers will raise few objections, though "Fracture" likely won't break any box office records.

An open-and-shut case becomes an elegantly framed battle of wits in “Fracture,” an absorbing legal thriller that can’t help but taste like exquisitely reheated leftovers. Meticulously crafted drama has plenty to recommend itself — fair-play crime plotting, Ryan Gosling’s skillful performance as a conflicted prosecutor, an unexpectedly droll sense of humor — but is ultimately less concerned with mounting suspense than burdening its protagonist with bogus moral dilemmas. Result is a smooth, proficient but curiously bloodless entertainment to which older viewers will raise few objections, though “Fracture” likely won’t break any box office records.

After focusing on a defense attorney and a client of questionable innocence in 1996’s “Primal Fear,” helmer Gregory Hoblit here pits a prosecutor against a defendant who’s guilty as sin from the get-go.

Elderly engineer Ted Crawford (Anthony Hopkins) is on trial for the attempted murder of his wife, Jennifer (Embeth Davidtz, “Junebug”), in their Southern California luxury home. Viewer follows Ted through every stage of his carefully premeditated crime — from the moment he calmly shoots Jennifer in the head to his confrontation with hostage negotiator Rob Nunally (Billy Burke), who is shocked when he realizes that the unconscious woman on the floor is none other than his lover.

Boldly implausible twist is the first tip-off that Ted has devised one hell of an escape route. Jennifer survives but remains in a coma, and the state’s case falls to hotshot prosecutor Willy Beachum (Gosling), who has an impressive conviction rate and one foot already out the door: He’s leaving the Los Angeles criminal court system, against the wishes of the D.A. (David Strathairn), to work at an upscale private law firm. But given the strength of the evidence against Ted, surely he can close the case in a week, right?

Not quite. Ted’s field of expertise is fracture mechanics, a tool for spotting structural flaws in aeronautical systems and, here, a metaphor for establishing reasonable doubt. Pic’s wittiest scenes are those in which Ted, acting as his own counsel, slyly demolishes Willy’s case — to say nothing of his ego and career prospects.

Those prospects are embodied in the seductive form of Willy’s boss-to-be, blond ice-goddess Nikki Gardner (Rosamund Pike), who wants her new hire to drop the case and switch over to the dark side already. (She also wants his bod, of course.) This lengthy subplot, which seemingly demonstrates that only sellouts work in corporate law, could easily have been stricken from Daniel Pyne and Glenn Gers’ otherwise shrewd screenplay.

Willy is saddled with such ethical quandaries throughout — at one point, a vengeful Nunally suggests they falsify evidence — and the story is as much invested in his personal and professional choices as it is in the trial’s outcome. Climax draws these threads together tidily and plausibly, though the scrupulously foreshadowed revelations won’t surprise viewers who’ve been paying attention.

After his rivetingly authentic turn as a strung-out schoolteacher in “Half Nelson,” Gosling again impresses in a slicker, more conventionally outlined role. Looking preternaturally boyish with his tall, lanky frame, even in a suit and tie, thesp delivers a charmingly off-kilter performance with a vague air of perpetual distraction, subtly charting Willy’s journey from cocksure arrogance to crushing defeat, followed by dogged persistence and dawning sense of responsibility and triumph.

Only thing missing is a sense of his rhetorical chops; while it’s implied that Willy is less gifted than opportunistic, more scenes of the young attorney passionately arguing his case would have added credibility. But “Fracture” isn’t, in the end, much of a legal drama; pic devotes little time to the actual trial and steers well clear of histrionics, as if to suggest the most important decisions and discoveries are made outside the courtroom.

Hopkins savors his part with soft-spoken relish, at first playing Ted as a malevolent clown — feigning cluelessness about the legal system, dropping vulgarisms in court with exquisite timing — only to brilliantly turn the tables. Taunting Willy from behind bars in a voice dripping with mock-paternal sadism, Hopkins at times seems to be channeling his Hannibal Lecter from “The Silence of the Lambs” (and, to a lesser degree, its inferior offshoots).

But the specter of “Silence” also exposes Ted as more construct than character — the sort of devious, only-in-the-movies mastermind who kills for the sheer thrill of getting away with it. Not helping to combat this idea is the unexamined nature of Ted and Jennifer’s marriage; audiences have seen a lot of loveless May-September unions, and this one, no thanks to Davidtz’s largely comatose role, never comes into focus.

Other thesps are strong, especially Strathairn as the stern but compassionate D.A. and Burke as the weak-willed cop who becomes an angry figure of disgrace.

Though informed by Hoblit’s experience directing episodes of “NYPD Blue” and “L.A. Law,” “Fracture” has been given a much moodier visual treatment than is the norm for television, cramming all manner of disorienting, at times claustrophobic camera angles into the widescreen frame. Production design gets at underlying themes of class mobility, contrasting Ted’s swanky estate with Willy’s more modest abode, or the cramped public courthouse with the sterile, spacious offices of a private firm.

Burnt-orange sunsets and extensive nocturnal shooting in downtown L.A., from the Walt Disney Concert Hall to the roof of the Standard Hotel, give the film a highly studied sense of place. Credit also must go to Dutch artist Mark Bischoff, whose astonishing Rube Goldberg-like mechanisms figure inventively into the story. All other tech contributions are supremely polished.

Fracture

Production

A New Line Cinema release of a Castle Rock, Charles Weinstock production. Produced by Weinstock. Executive producers, Liz Glotzer, Hawk Koch, Toby Emmerich. Co-producer, Louise Rosner. Directed by Gregory Hoblit. Screenplay, Daniel Pyne, Glenn Gers; story, Pyne.

Crew

Camera (FotoKem color, Deluxe prints, Panavision widescreen), Kramer Morgenthau; editor, David Rosenbloom; music, Mychael Danna, Jeff Danna; production designer, Paul Eads; art director, Mindy Roffman; set designer, Stella Vaccaro; set decorator, Nancy Nye; costume designer, Elisabetta Beraldo; sound (SDDS/Dolby Digital/DTS), David Ronne; supervising sound editor, Tom Bellfort; stunt coordinator, Billy Burton; associate producers, Michael Disco, Samuel J. Brown; assistant director, Scott Robertson; casting, Deborah Aquila, Trisha Wood, Jennifer Smith. Reviewed at New Line screening room, Los Angeles, March 29, 2007. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 112 MIN.

With

Ted Crawford - Anthony Hopkins Willy Beachum - Ryan Gosling Joe Lobruto - David Strathairn Nikki Gardner - Rosamund Pike Jennifer Crawford - Embeth Davidtz Rob Nunally - Billy Burke
With: Cliff Curtis, Fiona Shaw, Bob Gunton, Josh Stamberg, Xander Berkeley.

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