There is a shot of Ryan Gosling in the new crime thriller "Fracture," tooling down a residential street in Los Angeles behind the wheel of a well-used red BMW. The famous Hollywood sign sprawls across the hills behind him, floating above his head like a white crown. His face wears a look of assurance, contentment even, emanating with the unmistakable heat of a guy who has finally arrived.
The shot bespeaks the self-satisfied glory of his character, Willy Beachum, an assistant district attorney whose fierce 97 percent conviction rate has bagged him a position in one of the city's primo law firms. But it also radiates with the triumph of a deserving young actor who, having carefully nurtured his street cred with a succession of excellent indie roles and one slushy commercial hit ("The Notebook"), is now a player in the big town.
In "Fracture," Gosling gets to play the fool to a malevolent Anthony Hopkins, a potentially thankless role that did wonders for Jodie Foster on another occasion. Hopkins' character, a brainy, well-heeled mechanical engineer named Ted Crawford, lacks the extensive murder resume of his Hannibal Lecter; Ted merely shot his wife point-blank, leaving her unconscious and uneaten. But he takes a page or two from Lecter's rule book, reveling in head games that reduce his confident opponents to quivering, ineffectual blobs of Jell-O.
We smell trouble the minute Gosling's character takes on the prosecution of Crawford's crime, just as he's about to walk out the door to his lucrative new job. Beachum is just too cocky; he needs to be knocked down a peg or two. What's more, the case stinks to heaven. Having attempted to kill his wife (Embeth Davidtz) for cheating on him and then having barricaded himself against the cops, Crawford welcomes a hostage negotiator (Billy Burke) into his house with open arms. Crawford is hauled away; a murder weapon is removed; a confession is signed. Done deal.
But it's too open and shut to be that easy, and besides, it's just the beginning of the picture. We recognize that wily glint in Hopkins' eye from "The Silence of the Lambs," and we already understand the havoc a man is capable of wreaking from the confinement of a jail cell. Once Crawford steps up to serve as his own attorney, you know that the young prosecutor's professional unmaking is about to commence.
Directed with a sure hand by Gregory Hoblit (who knows something about cocky attorneys and devious criminals from "Primal Fear"), "Fracture" walks a thin line between fulfilling expectations and confounding them. Screenwriter Daniel Pyne does a reasonably good job in balancing the battle of wits between his rising legal-eagle and his calculating wife-killer.
The casting of the overexposed Hopkins ends up working against their efforts, however: It's almost too obvious to be fresh and interesting. I found myself resenting the niggling feeling that I was supposed to find Crawford's pinprick wit kind of cool, in that gotcha Hannibal way.
To his credit, Gosling retrieves some of the scenery before Hopkins can swallow it whole, injecting Willy Beachum's swagger with a measure of vulnerability that makes his precipitous fall from grace rending to watch. Gosling is the real deal. One hopes that as his star ascends, he'll maintain the grip on terra firma required to prevent his character's hubris from becoming his own.