Anthony Hopkins, as a smirky evil genius trying to get away with murder by confessing to it, and Ryan Gosling, as the sharkish junior prosecutor who becomes obsessed with getting him convicted, are such stylishly well-matched antagonists in Fracture that it's tempting to say they elevate a conventional, even corny, legal thriller. But that would be to shortchange the film, which has been directed, by Gregory Hoblit, with some of the same hokey-smart trapdoor cleverness he brought to Primal Fear 11 years ago.
The two actors are terrific. Hopkins, doing a gloss on Hannibal Lecter's mannerisms, invites us to relish that soft-voiced Welsh burr he spreads the intellectual superiority like butter and jack-o'-lantern grin. Gosling plays Willy Beachum, who's about to leave the DA's office for a poshly cutthroat corporate job. Speaking in a sexy light drawl (he's supposed to be upwardly mobile ''white trash,'' like Clarice Starling) and raising his eyebrows into dancing half circles, Gosling makes Willy a conflicted yuppie Hamlet. Fracture has a gourmet-popcorn finesse. It's just good enough to be called Hitchcockian which means, of course, that the movie is really all about the questions, those pesky little unsolved mysteries that spank each scene along because they're keys to the personalities on display.
Hopkins' Ted Crawford, who is some sort of fabled aeronautics engineer, knows that his lovely younger wife (Embeth Davidtz) is having an affair. When she arrives home they live in one of those sleek real-estate-porn L.A. ranch-house palaces he pulls out a handgun and shoots her in the head. The dastardly deed has, of course, been perfectly set up. When the cops arrive, Crawford's wife is still clinging to life, and they send in a hostage negotiator (Billy Burke), who turns out to be her lover from the opening scene. Crawford goads him into a scuffle (which won't exactly make the cop look objective later on), and when the house is searched, the fatal weapon has disappeared.
How did Crawford get rid of it? On paper, that's a mechanical enigma, yet the question prods us, nags at us, keeps turning around in our heads. It's an issue of character the key, really, to Crawford's malign brilliance so it adds flesh, or at least the illusion of it, to the mystery's bones. Crawford starts to act as his own attorney, and Willy, for a while, wants no part of the case; he wants to be out the door to his new job at a deluxe WASP firm, the kind that earns its lucre by defending the worst corporate predators. But Crawford fastens on to him, taunting him, looking for his ''fracture'' point. Hopkins and Gosling just about lock frontal lobes their duels shoot off volts. As Willy starts to lose, his instincts as a lawyer begin to trump his ambition, and he can't let the case go. We know the feeling. It may be obvious that Fracture is working on us, playing us, but that's its pleasure. It makes overwrought manipulation seem more than a basic instinct.