Silencing The Lamb
By Noel Vera

Dir: Gregory Hoblit (2007)

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury:


I submit to you that Gregory Hoblit's latest film isn't a crime thriller or even legal thriller at all; one just has to see Anthony Hopkins' Ted Crawford make his furtive way round a swimming pool, observing his wife Jennifer (Embeth Davidtz) and her police lover Rob Nunally (Billy Burke) in a watery clinch, to see what the picture is really up to: a chance for Sir Hopkins to strut once more in Hannibal Lecter mode.

Consider: Hopkins is much too old for the physical demands of playing a serial killer (the last time he did, five years ago, Brett Ratner had to cut around the fact that he was using a stunt double much of the time).

He is also too familiar to audiences now, is probably aware that they may be tired - is himself probably tired - of the role. If Sir Hopkins were to don yon hockey mask one more time, he would be laughed off the screen; he needed a new shtick, a new way to entertain the audience.

Hence, this cleverly modified part. Instead of playing a serial killer of superior intelligence, he plays a murder suspect of superior intelligence (keeping the man incarcerated is key, as both Jonathan Demme (who directed him in "Silence") and Hoblit must have realized--behind bars Hopkins is a magnetic presence, able to represent tremendous forces in check, or great evil barely held at bay); instead of a dewy young FBI agent for a foil, he has dewy young prosecutor Willy Beachum (played by aptly named Ryan Gosling); instead of committing a series of horrifying killings he commits just one, his wife's; instead of a devilishly planned escape, a devilishly planned trial defense--with Beachum's career prospects also put at stake as a kind of collateral.

But if that were the only aim of the picture, ladies and gentlemen, I would plead mere plagiarism. As is, Hoblit and writers Daniel Pyne and Glenn Gers fashion an amusingly intricate tale of misdirection, where Ted Crawford lulls Beachum into thinking he has an open-and-shut case (Crawford is arrested holding a gun and has confessed verbally and in writing) before zinging the unsuspecting fool (it's amazing how aeronautics engineers (Crawford seems to specialize in finding design flaws, or structural damage) are easily able to outmaneuver trial lawyers with a 97 per cent conviction rate).

Hoblit has gone this way before, of course; back in 1996 he directed "Primal Fear" where an overconfident defense lawyer played by Richard Gere walked into an interrogation cell containing a scared, neurotic prisoner played by Edward Norton. Parallels too with the O.J. Simpson case, where the blame is ultimately put on some unnamed, unknowable and probably nonexistent other man.

Hoblit you must remember is a veteran TV director--"NYPD Blues," "LA Law," "Hill Street Blues" (almost a who's who of '80s television)--turned filmmaker. He knows how to stage an efficient, effective scene, he knows how to keep the narrative moving (in "Psycho" Alfred Hitchcock depended on a TV crew to help move the heavily expository scenes along swiftly), and he largely avoids the greatest sin a competent craftsman (as opposed to a great artist) can possibly commit--be pretentious.

With the help of cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau he is able to bathe the courtroom in amber lighting, lend the corporate law offices a seductive modern glow (This is what the law offices in Taylor Hackford's "The Devil's Advocate" should have looked like--less comic-book obvious, more diabolically chic), and even give us sweeping helicopter views of what little downtown Los Angeles has managed to accumulate that actually seem fresh, and not stock footage.

In Gosling I submit that Hoblit has found his second Norton. Gosling is not as startling a discovery - he's been noticed as far back as "Remember the Titans" (2000) - and his role isn't as showy as Norton's, but he's asked to slowly wake up from his smug complacency, reach down deep into himself, and pull out a response strong enough to be pitted against Hopkins' sly hamminess without evaporating in embarrassment.


Gosling's solution is to let Hopkins walk all over him, again and again and again; the tension from waiting for the tide to turn--for Gosling to deliver Biblical comeuppance on Hopkins--becomes well nigh unbearable.

As for Hopkins--pure hokum. But, ladies and gentlemen, I submit that the hokum is presented without hypocrisy; this is not an important film, nor was it meant to be, and the frankness is frankly refreshing. Hoblit plays up Hopkins' Lecter tics, shining a light into Hopkins' eyes to give them a reptilian glitter; posing his figure, erect and immobile, against various dark backgrounds (one thinks of some tightly bound golem about to burst into malevolent life); lingering over the creases and crows' feet around the eyes to give the impression of weathered toughness and ancient cunning--of someone whose style is to burrow underground, undermining all who oppose him.

I submit that the ending is overly simple, and is either telegraphed or confused by the matter of Officer Nunally's offering a bit of manufactured evidence of his own to help the case (by way of mitigating circumstances, I do think it a relief that for once a thriller is resolved not with a shootout or car chase, but with brain and wit desperately probing for an opponent's weakness).

"Fracture," ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is no great film, but it's a surprisingly good one, able to entertain and make full use of its cast (and the associations they bring with them) without insulting one's intelligence or sense of reality. I ask you to do the right thing, and find the defendant not guilty of the crime of boring the audience. Thank you.

Note: First published in Businessworld, 05/18/07.
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July 6, 2007