The opening sequence begins with a surreptitious visit to a hotel, as Crawford discovers his wife has been cheating on him, and concludes with the previously mentioned act of violence at the couple’s luxurious house. The extent of the premeditated nature of Crawford’s actions is first shown when the cop who enters the house to arrest him turns out to be the same guy his wife Jennifer (Embeth Davidtz) was having an affair with. I understand the cop’s role is not supposed to be the focus here, but Billy Burke does the best he can with a part that feels truncated and underwritten, especially in light of what happens to him in the second act. The main battle of wits is introduced when the task of prosecuting Crawford is given to Willy Beachum, a hotshot assistant district attorney with his foot in the door at a high-stakes corporate law firm. Played with understated arrogance and a hint of self-doubt by the excellent Ryan Gosling, Beachum figures the case is an open-and-shut one, given that a weapon was found and a confession has been signed, but we know it can’t be that easy when the actor in front of you once played a brilliant psychiatrist turned serial killer and cannibal, possibly with some nice Chianti. When Anthony Hopkins flashes that trademark wink, you know you’re in for quite a battle of the minds.
Also of relevance are David Strathairn as the district attorney and Rosamund Pike (Pride and Prejudice) as Nikki, a corporate lawyer whose affections for Willy are entirely dependent on whether or not he does exactly what she expects, personal feelings or moral concerns be damned. She’s dropped rather suddenly from the storyline, but let’s just say she makes her portrayal of Miranda Frost in Die Another Day look cuddly and warm in comparison. I also want to mention Nikki’s dad, a thoughtful judge played by Bob Gunton (Dead Silence): he doesn’t get to say much, but one thing he tells Willy about paving the way to justice becomes the film’s moral anchor.
Hopkins’ performance may remind some of his work in Silence of the Lambs, in the sense that he’s another character trying to tip the scales in his favour through cunning behaviour. As Hannibal Lecter he projected the image of a dangerous madman who was ironically very much in control; here he plays a man trying at first to establish a friendly relationship with Willy, calling him “old sport” and things like that. Choosing to defend himself, Crawford shows no worry whatsoever about the possible outcome of the judicial process, doodling in court like a bored high school kid and poking fun at Willy wearing a tuxedo, humorous touches that feel out of place. The screenplay from Glenn Gers and Daniel Pyne is quite uneven, while the workmanlike direction from Gregory Hoblit (Primal Fear) rarely brings a sense of elevated importance to what’s going on. Early in the film, at some lawyers’ schmoozing party, Nikki introduces herself to Willy by asking him whether he’s a shark, with a look that says she does enjoy snacking on smaller fish herself. This is echoed, artificially, when the pernicious Crawford tells Willy that his weak spot, his fracture point if you will, is that he’s a minnow. Based upon the evidence, being a minnow is the morally responsible choice, but the way the film comes at that conclusion is not especially enthralling.
Review by Jean-François Tremblay