'Fracture': Great Cast, but Later You'll Mutter 'Gimme a Break'

In "Fracture," Anthony Hopkins, above, engineers a murder. Will young Ryan Gosling let him get away with it? (Photos By Sam Emerson -- New Line Cinema)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 20, 2007

It might do to think of a thriller as a soap bubble of belief at play in the winds of your imagination. With a substandard issue like last week's "Perfect Stranger," with Bruce Willis and Halle Berry, the bubble pops almost immediately. It isn't even off-screen before its illusion of substance and coherence has vanished into mist. And if you don't believe, that theater seat gets awfully hard awfully fast.

At the far end of the bubble spectrum, of course, would be classics like "The Third Man" or "The Silence of the Lambs" whose bubbles never burst and whose characters and storylines stay afloat in the weather of your skull forever. Even to mention them is to call up a deep and abiding shiver of pleasure.

And in between is something like Gregory Hoblit's "Fracture," which stays afloat through its entire running time. You're even thinking "Hmm, yeah, nice twist" and "Oh, hadn't thought of that" or "So that's how he did it." There's even a little goose at the end; Hoblit knows what he is doing, and in fact directed the much better "Primal Fear," which was released in 1996.

Then in the multiplex parking lot -- or maybe as late as in the car, on the road, almost home-- it goes blooie ! It just goes thermonuclear on you, like one of the big, ringed "Star Wars" explosions. You realize how totally you've been had, how any kind of scrutiny causes it to detonate.

The movie's attributes: fine performances, beautiful, evocative photography, familiar story line yet newly arranged, sudden little darts and shifts, all building to a big voilĂ !

Its downside: the big bang.

As a vehicle for two fine actors, Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Gosling, it's at its best. Hopkins plays a prosperous Los Angeles aeronautical engineer, a metallurgist of genius (he studies fractures even as the movie watches him have one) with an Architectural Digest house and a Vogue wife (Embeth Davidtz). But as young beauties occasionally do to the old lions who cosset them, his wife is cheating on him with a leaner, harder, less blemishy, less wattled body. The husband tracks her to the posh hotel room where she and boyfriend cavort and watches bitterly.

That evening she comes home. He smiles at her, pulls a Glock and shoots her in the face.

The cops are called by the gardeners. A young detective (Billy Burke) tries to negotiate the armed old man out of his stand-off but then notices the body. Just as he's noticing that, we're noticing that we've seen him before. The dead woman is his lover; he's the hard, lean, less wattled body.

Pleasantly, the old man surrenders and confesses. He exudes bonhomie and charm, he wants this to be easy on his captors. He cooperates, even turns down a request for a lawyer. Everything is building neatly to a slam dunk.

The case is given to a young prosecutor (Gosling) who's about to start a big job with a posh firm. Distracted his last week in the job, the young guy doesn't prepare for the initial hearing on the case with quite the same passion as he might have, and walks into a buzz saw. The geezer has tricked them all, and it looks like the perp -- found standing with a smoking pistol over his now-comatose wife -- will walk, smiling that icy blue Welsh Hannibal Lecter smile, allowing himself a smirk. Memo to Anthony Hopkins: Unless you're playing Lecter, whose escapes are preordained, it's not a good idea to smirk.

Gosling, who broke through with his Oscar-nominated performance in "Half Nelson," is interesting to watch. He's the jackal to Hopkins's lion: cunning, fey, a scrapper, maybe overmatched, caught at the terrible career crossroads. He can abandon the case and go on to the posh career, but everyone knows he's been had. He can stick with it, fight it out, but if he loses, he loses everything.

It's a wonderful situation, pregnant with possibility. The whole thing turns on the missing gun. How does a Glock .45 simply disappear from a house? I saw half the answer coming but must give the writers, Daniel Pyne and Glen Gers, credit, because I didn't figure on the other half.

In retrospect, of course, it doesn't hold air, water or atoms. It doesn't even hold molecules. The caper is built on one of those delicate suppositions where somebody outside of the planner's influence has to do exactly such and such at exactly such and such a time, while nobody else, in examining the outcome of those circumstances, notices a conspicuous coincidence. You wouldn't bet two cents on such an outcome.

But the good part about this okay, but way less than great, thriller is that you won't notice how cheesy it is until the heartburn from the popcorn has eased. In these jaded times, that's a bargain.

Fracture (89 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for violence, psychological intensity and profanity.

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