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‘Fracture’ is a stylish cat-and-mouse game

The joy of this film is watching Gosling and Hopkins work together. By John Hartl

The lighting is so elegantly atmospheric in Gregory Hoblit’s new courtroom thriller, “Fracture,” that it threatens to upstage the actors. Pools of light provide focus, solar blasts through a window make indoor lighting seem superfluous, while smoke and dust turn sunbeams into rays and carve human features into dunes and shadows.

Fortunately, the young pro and the old pro at the center of the movie are up to the challenge. Ryan Gosling may squint a bit when the sun shines almost directly into his eyes, and Anthony Hopkins may exaggerate a menacing wink when the light hits him at just the right angle, but they don’t allow the showy cinematographer, Kramer Morgenthau, to take over.

Gosling and Hopkins are there to serve the plot and deliver a shamelessly old-fashioned acting contest that effectively turns everyone else in the cast into a minor supporting player. When these two are on-screen together, which is much of the time, director Gregory Hoblit (“Primal Fear,” “Frequency”) doesn’t let anything get in their way.

Gosling plays a hotshot Los Angeles lawyer, Willy Beachum, who finds himself prosecuting a millionaire, Ted Crawford (Hopkins), for the attempted murder of his trophy wife, Jennifer (Embeth Daviditz). In a shockingly cold-blooded scene, Crawford accuses her of adultery, shoots her in the face and leaves her in a coma.

Since Crawford admits to his crime, Beachum appears to have won the case before the trial begins, but things turn complicated when Crawford makes a surprising accusation in court. Suddenly it’s Crawford who is in control, and Beachum is forced to reconsider his relationships with his current boss (David Strathairn) and his new boss and girlfriend (Rosamund Pike).

Daniel Pyne’s delightfully tricky screenplay does such a persuasive job of making the case appear black-and-white that the audience is invited to share the assumptions of Crawford’s legal enemies. But Pyne quickly pulls the rug out from under us, as well as Beachum, who can save himself only by becoming less cynical and arrogant.

During a squirm-inducing Thanksgiving party, he’s all but challenged to do the right thing. He’s forced into finding a way to nail Crawford or to succeed at his new law firm, and it’s not at all a simple choice. It may be that there is no way to save Beachum’s career and keep Crawford from getting away with murder.

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What keeps the movie going is the cat-and-mouse gamesmanship that develops between Crawford and Beachum, and between Hopkins and Gosling. From their very first scene, in which each man amuses himself by taking the measure of the other, it’s clear that these two have found their match — at least as courtroom adversaries.

For Hopkins, who is not above phoning in a performance if the script doesn’t motivate him, “Fracture” demonstrates what wonders he can perform when he’s approaching Hannibal Lecter territory. For Gosling, still in his 20s and fresh from his first Oscar nomination for “Half Nelson,” the movie shows that he can his hold his own with one of the most experienced scene-stealers in the business.