In the courtroom thriller Fracture, Anthony Hopkins stars as an engineer with a gift for finding a structure’s tiniest, most difficult-to-spot weak points. You don’t need to be much of expert in anything, though, to see the myriad flaws in the movie. Smart thrillers are all about carefully constructed story, and this one is built about as solidly as a North Korean skyscraper — it’s a wonder it manages to hold up at all.
Not that legal-suspense flicks like this one require much effort. Take a fresh young star, (in this case, Ryan Gosling), a tricky killer (Hopkins), add in a steamy, tumultuous love story with a blonde bombshell (former Bond-girl Rosamund Pike), some detective work, and some courtroom shenanigans, and you’ve either got yourself a mediocre Law & Order rip-off or second rate, off-season genre junk like Fracture. Slapping together generic tripe like this takes about as much skill as making toast — although, in the case of Fracture director Gregory Hoblit, that might be burnt toast delivered late.
Hoblit specializes in late-to-the-party off-brand genre clones; you could sum up his entire oeuvre as “too little, too late.” He got his theatrical start with 1996’s Primal Fear, another court room thriller modeled on the legal dramas of the 80s, and followed it up with, Fallen, an entry into the moody serial-killer genre that arrived several years after the genre peaked. He’s like the kid who perpetually turns in all his homework at the end of the semester.
And so it is with Fracture, another plodding exercise in legal proceedings and implausibly mangled plotlines. Primal Fear and Fallen were at least diverting, but this time around, Hoblit and his writers didn’t even have the decency to learn why the genre works the way it does. They’ve simply stuffed their film with familiar scenes: the one where the hero gets frustrated and throws something on his desk, the one where the hero’s work causes trouble in his love life, the one where the creepy killer coyly teases the hero with clues; and countless others you’ve no doubt seen since you were old enough to stay up and watch L.A. Law. One of Hopkins’s pointless tics is that he builds large, needlessly complex contraptions that move steel balls around in circles. When one of the characters asks another what, exactly, it is, he gets this hapless reply: “It’s… a machine. It does… stuff.” This seems to be a fairly accurate representation of the writers’ approach to the screenplay.
When the movie is watchable, it’s because of Ryan Gosling. Gosling, fresh off winning mostly unwarranted critical raves, if not much in the way of box office success, from his turn in Half Nelson as an inner-city teacher who skips planned lessons in favor of rambling lectures about Marxism (an angsty young Marxist in the inner city — now there’s a ticket to critical gold if I ever saw one). Here, however, he shows he’s got the chops to be a mainstream leading man; although his mild southern accent seems a pointless affectation and his love story is beyond inane, he still manages to be as naturally appealing as Will Smith. It’s simply tough to dislike him, and he grins and charms his way past Hopkins every time they share a scene.
Not that Hopkins does much to try to compete. He pulls the same beady-eyed genius/creep routine he’s been doing for almost two decades. It’s a shtick at this point, and he doesn’t even care enough to turn it into parody. There are no surprises here; he purrs and hisses, licks his lips a bit, and is as calculated as a senator drumming up fake outrage at a press conference. He’s added pounds and wrinkles and lost some hair, but otherwise it’s the same tired act. At this point, he’s ripped himself off so many times that he plays like a fifth-generation VHS copy — worn, degraded, overly familiar, and — needless to say — not particularly worth watching.
What’s disturbing about his performance (and the movie in general), however, isn’t at all what was intended. Hopkins, as almost always, is aiming to capture that maniacal menace that both appalls and attracts viewers. Since Silence of the Lambs, he’s starred in numerous thrillers playing parts that are explicitly or implicitly billed as opening a portal into the mind of a murderous, psychopathic genius.
But just a few days ago, at Virginia Tech, we saw the results of a real murderous psychopath, one who was also careful and planned out enough to get away with an unspeakably barbarous act. And in the days since, through his writings and videos, we’ve — as the news broadcasts have repeatedly exclaimed — “seen into his mind.” What we’ve seen there, though, isn’t exciting or alluring, and it’s certainly not classifiable as genius. No, it’s unadulterated madness, anger, and despair; it’s sick and terrible — the makings of a horrible tragedy, not a Friday-night thrill.
Blaming Hollywood, of course, is too easy, and doing so shifts the culpability away from the real perpetrator. But the issue isn’t blame or lack thereof. It’s whether anyone is really interested in being dazzled by the cleverness of a slick, urbane murderer this week. I, for one, need at least a temporary break from the fetishizing of dramatic execution. It seems that Fracture, quite unintentionally, has found my breaking point.
–Peter Suderman is managing editor of National Review Online.