Full Nelson

Ryan Gosling shines with his every move in the smart legal thriller Fracture.

Fracture Directed by Gregory Hoblit. Written by Daniel Pyne and Glenn Gers. Starring Anthony Hopkins, Ryan Gosling, and David Strathairn. Rated R.

Opens Friday.

Ryan Gosling has a gift for making every other actor look lazy.
Ryan Gosling has a gift for making every other actor look lazy.
This week's generically titled studio suspense-thriller, Fracture, has the good sense to begin where last week's generically titled studio suspense-thriller, Perfect Stranger, ended -- with the solution to that tedious riddle: Whodunit? The answer this time is Anthony Hopkins as Ted Crawford, an aeronautical engineer whose pockets of money and glassy modernist mansion aren't enough to dissuade his much younger wife (Embeth Davidtz) from canoodling with an off-duty cop. So with a cool composure that Hannibal Lecter would surely approve, Crawford puts a bullet in her head and -- following a brief standoff -- surrenders to the police. He even confesses to the crime, as anyone who has seen the movie's ad campaign (posters of Hopkins' mug, with the words "I shot my wife" writ large) already knows. It would seem to be an open-and-shut case if ever there was one -- a cinch for Willy Beachum (Ryan Gosling), a deputy Los Angeles D.A. with a 97 percent conviction rate, a cocksure swagger, and a job awaiting him at one of those tony corporate law firms where, in the words of Beachum's world-weary boss (David Strathairn), "Everyone plays squash and has middle initials."

Only, Beachum's last stand as a public servant isn't as simple as all that -- there wouldn't be a movie if it were -- for no sooner does he deliver his opening remarks than all his seemingly airtight evidence begins to go the way of O.J.'s bloody glove. For starters, there's Crawford's confession, which just happens to have been given in the presence of the very detective who was going under the covers with the now-comatose Mrs. Crawford. And as for the gun taken from Crawford's hand at the scene? Turns out it's never even been fired. Providing his own defense with a mix of stumblebum buffoonery and canny legal savvy, Crawford sits across the courtroom from the miffed Beachum, watching each new revelation drop with the sadistic glee of a child pouring salt upon a snail. When they meet face-to-face in Crawford's cell -- a subterranean chamber attended by a green, gaseous glow, as if to signal some sort of hellish kingdom -- Crawford offers his young adversary a crash course in Engineering 101: Everything -- and everyone -- has a weak spot at which they can break, he says, and Beachum's is his lust for success.

Directed by Gregory Hoblit from an enjoyably knotty script by Daniel Pyne and Glenn Gers, Fracture isn't a great movie -- the self-serious early scenes, especially, are the stuff that Skinemax is made of -- but it hums with the insidious smarts and theatrical flair that made Hoblit's debut feature, Primal Fear, a classic of its kind. Like that picture, this one takes a legal procedural that reeks of week-old Law & Order and pulls it off with unexpected zeal by playing up the bass line instead of the melody, and by offering us the spectacle of two gifted actors working at the top of their game. It's smart enough to realize that what turns a trial -- be it fictional or evening-news variety -- into high drama usually has less to do with the case itself than with the outsized personalities of its players, the carnival atmosphere of the courtroom, and the macabre thrill of watching a diabolically clever defendant potentially get away with murder. It's also one of the rare American films to openly address matters of class and wealth -- call it The Pursuit of Unhappyness -- and the more it progresses, the more Fracture becomes something of a gallows comedy about the price of ambition in the big city, with the working-class Beachum a variation on the classic film-noir protagonist who finds himself paying a steep price for daring to want too much.

Fracture -- which seems destined to do for low-paying public-prosecutor jobs what Top Gun did for naval recruitment -- could have been done up all dreary and straight. But under Hoblit's direction, the actors tear into their roles. Hopkins, who has spent far too much of his post-Silence of the Lambs career regurgitating Hannibal the Cannibal as a dinner-theater caricature, plays Crawford the way he played Lecter the first time around: close to the vest, with touches of romantic melodrama -- a madman fully in possession of his faculties and all the more chilling for it. It's Gosling, though, who continues to astonish, and if Beachum seems an even bigger revelation than his Oscar-nominated Half Nelson turn, it's because the role as written gives him so much less to work with. Gosling owns the part, his eyes afire with the hunger of those who have spent a lifetime angling for a room at the top, or even in the building. On-screen, Gosling is so focused, yet so loose and at ease, that his every movement and gesture flow as naturally as the words from his mouth. He's the kind of actor who makes other actors look lazy -- the kind who can turn the way he slouches in a chair into a riveting bit of business, a clue to his character. No moment is wasted. Nothing has been left to chance. He is Brando at the time of Streetcar or Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces, and altogether one of the more remarkable happenings at the movies today.

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