The Perfect Murder:
A Study in Detection
by David Lehman
(in discounted Paperback from Amazon)
This battle of wits between a criminal cum laude and a district attorney with equal intelligence is crafted with exemplary brilliance and cast to match. It may leave a question hanging here and there, but nothing that would blunt the sharp clash between evil genius and justice. Splendid visual ideas compounds the artistry.
The setup is twofold. On the side of blatant evil is Ted Crawford (Anthony Hopkins), a fracture mechanics engineer given to spend hours in his elegantly modern digs studying plastic balls rolling down gravity paths in an intricate brass machine he built. His other activity is spying on his wife Jennifer (Embeth Davidtz, "Junebug") with her lover, cop Rob Nunally (Billy Burke, "Ladder 49"). Calmly methodical, he takes advantage of a moment when the couple is outside to enter the man's bedroom to confirm what the lovers just got through doing.
Later, Crawford awaits his wife's return home. She's surprised to find him there so early. As she turns to him, he raises his automatic pistol and shoots her in the face. She falls to the floor and, in a reflection of her blood pooling around her head, we see the killer watching her bleed (one of those interesting visual ideas).
He pulls her by her ankles to a position within sight of the front door and stands ready for the arrival of police, holding his gun, watching on his security monitor. Hostage negotiator Rob Nunnally makes phone contact and is invited in, where Crawford insists they both lay their weapons aside. Crawford then shows Nunnally his wife's body, freezing the cop in disbelief when he realizes that it's his lover, whose home he'd never seen.
Now we have the arraignment, which brings in Assistant D.A. Willy Beachum (Ryan Gosling) whose previous case establishes him as a hot shot prosecutor with a near perfect conviction rate and all the arrogance and assumptions of superiority that go along with it. This is a case he barely accepted, but with a murder confession it's not likely to last long enough to interfere with his golden boy new job with a prestigious law firm. His plans, of course, earn him no congrats and best wishes from his boss, D.A. Joe Lobruto (David Strathairn, "Good Night and Good Luck").
ADA Beachum isn't too thrilled when suspect Crawford insists on representing himself at trial but neither he nor the judge can convince the murderous engineer otherwise. As we'll learn, it's a ploy to put everyone off their guard when the crime fighters discover they don't have the key evidence, the murder weapon. The automatic pistol found at the crime scene doesn't match the casing. Beachum's investigative team, suspecting he hid it somewhere in the house, comb the place 4 times with no luck. Instead of the slam dunk he expected, Beachum's hands are empty. He tastes the bitterness of a rare loss, all the more stringent for the assumptions made at the beginning.
Beachum learns from his defeat. Understanding his mistake by way of lack of concentration and underestimation of his adversary, he proceeds to engage him further on the field of legal battle. A level of doubt arises at his new place of business, most especially in the confidence placed in him by his new boss Nikki Gardner (Rosamund Pike, "Pride and Prejudice"), an icy highball of beauty, sensuality and calculation with a heart of gold by Tiffany. The tensions provided by this relationship add personal issues, like ambition vs integrity, to balance the match against a killer. Where the romance is going, however, is somewhat muddy, even after they hit the sack and she takes him home for Thanksgiving to meet the folks.
It's a perfect murder mind game that plays out with wit, intellectual relish and cutting dialogue. The "fracture" here is what the suspect does to the legal system with a confession and clever "engineering."
Director Gregory Hoblit ("Primal Fear") demonstrates his taste for proficient production values as he works from a script by Daniel Pyne and Glenn Gers from Pyne's story. Visual tastefulness is finely realized by cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau.
And, as far as expectations go, Gosling, after a string of unexpected successes, appears to be on his way to a next level of stardom, having fought his way to an opportunity vehicle like this through sheer style and talent. It's a grand payoff for "Half Nelson," which awoke the industry to the effect he can have on an audience with a modest character study.
There's nothing like merit winning the case and this little gem of entertainment with a mental edge is a good brief on the possibilities.
~~ Jules Brenner