Fracture (2007)

2007-04-20 (General release)

Knowledge is pain. I’m used to that. Not that I don’t get some little pleasures returned from the pain.

— Ted (Anthony Hopkins)

Assigned to what seems an easy murder case, a young L.A. Deputy DA named Willy (Ryan Gosling) is distracted. Recently handpicked to join a glossy downtown firm that specializes in brilliant defenses for wealthy clients, he imagines this will be his last case for the prosecution. Willy arrives at the crime scene with cell phone in hand, trying to parse the finer points of office décor. “What’s the difference between Italian and English?” he wonders, while the nearby detectives roll their eyes. When at last Willy notices the tastefully designed space around him, he turns to Detective Flores (Cliff Curtis), asking what he would call it. The cop’s response is impeccably deadpan: “Homicidal modern.”

Flores (thanks largely to Curtis’ sly performance) provides the single freshness in Fracture. Part police procedural, part courtroom hijinks, and part cunning murder plot, Gregory Hoblit’s new movie brings the usual canards. Willy learns a lesson about ego, power, and morality, owing to the killer Ted’s (Anthony Hopkins) predictable underestimation of his adversary. That they face off over a woman’s body only underlines the film’s grim dearth of imagination.

The initial violence is delivered via stylish lighting and skewed camera angles. Aware that his wife Jennifer (Embeth Davidtz, excellent in Hoblit’s excellent Fallen [1998]) is sleeping with another man, Ted confronts her in their “homicidal modern” living room. She goes down in fabulous fashion: shot in the face, her collapse appears from several angles and in slow motion, dark blood pooling beneath as Ted drags her body about, arranging the scene just so. He goads the first cop on scene, Rob (Billy Burke), who happens to be Jennifer’s lover. Aha, you surmise, a trap is being set. Now you only have to figure its specifics, a task that proves more difficult for the brilliant Deputy DA than it does for you. His slow uptake could be a function of his being distracted, as Fracture displays repeatedly, but more likely it’s a function of your having seen this movie before.

Consider the Hannibal Lecterness of Ted. The visual rhymes are immediate, of course, sharply underlit close-ups denoting evil intent, his vocal rhythms a musty “intelligence” (he likes to call Willy “old sport”). Ted first espies his mark in the preliminary hearing — Willy arrives late, wearing a tux (the reason is not even mildly diverting or convincing, though it does lead to the film’s single laugh-out-loud line, delivered precisely by the brilliant Xander Berkeley as the judge: “I appreciate your concern for the dignity of the court, 007”). Ted goes pro se, and the contest is on. He’s arranged that his confession will be inadmissible, as will the seeming “slam dunk” evidence, such that Willy must scramble to fix the mess, lest he lose his new job even before he arrives in his newly decorated office.

Willy is especially motivated when he meets his new boss, Nikki (Rosamund Pike). She promises him a “trial by fire” in his first case for her firm, flirts with him audaciously while (or, more accurately, by) wondering out loud why her own boss has selected the upstart, then invites him into her bed to boot. She’s pretty and well appointed, clever and coy in a control freaky kind of way. Thus the utter illogic of her inviting Willy to Thanksgiving at her parents, an event that she warns him is troubling for her. He goes along, being the sort of workaholic (as a DDA, he has a 97% conviction rate, a number of which you’re reminded more than once) who has no friends or family. He’s also apparently looking to be the next incarnation of Keanu Reeves in The Devil’s Advocate; in case you’re determined to miss this allusion, Nikki pronounces it when she reminds Willy to sign the contract “with the devil in blood,” revealing that her sense of humor is as dated as her purpose in the plot.

Ryan Gosling stars as “Willy Beachum”

But the invite is not illogical within the film’s awkward scheming, but rather, a means to demonize her further: her siblings are noble and sweetly anti-corporate, working for the Sierra Club and ACLU, her father, a wise and moral-minded judge (Bob Gunton) who proposes a reason Willy might want to remain a lowly civil servant rather than take up with darling Nikki: “Every once in a while,” he smiles, “you get to put a fucking stake through a bad guy’s heart.” The judge instantly becomes a more compelling model for Willy than his ostensible girlfriend and mentor (Nikki tells him early on that she’s more of a “probation officer,” a joke he predictably doesn’t take seriously enough).

Nikki, being so transparent, actually does not provide much distraction for the eminently distractible Willy. Thus he focuses quickly on his proper object of dread and attraction, Ted. In an effort to obtain a witness against Ted, Willy heads to the hospital and sits by the comatose Jennifer’s bedside, reading to her in hopes that she will awaken. An observant resident (Judith Scott) advises Willy the patient’s twitching is in fact meaningless: “They all move,” she says, “It’s just what’s left of the system.”

It’s an almost smart line, conflating Jennifer’s inert body with the legal system that’s about to let Ted off. But the conflation is precisely what’s wrong with the oddly titled Fracture. The focus on Willy’s ethical and emotional education argues that, for all the system’s brokenness, civil service is noble. The judge notes it, as does the DA (David Strathairn), who insists Willy has something like a proclivity to do the right thing, manifested in that conviction rate. It might also mean, of course, that he’s inclined to compete, play boy games, and “move on up,” as he believes he deserves (“I just didn’t work this hard to stay where I belong,” he whines, by way of explaining his ambition).

But Willy and the movie don’t take a next step except when forced, as when the plot demands a moralizing reveal that grants Willy (and the system) an insipid victory over the villain. Tellingly, he reaches this moment during a bit of non-conversation with Flores. Intermittently, the detective has observed the dire nature of the case, the impossible lack of evidence, the abjection it brings down upon his partner Rob. Standing just outside the sense of obligation and anxiety that drives Willy, Flores maintains a practical grasp of the situation, his detachment both persuasive and instantly recognizable. You know why: he, like you, has seen this movie before.

RATING 5 / 10