Ted Crawford (Hopkins) is a brilliant and wealthy aeronautical engineer who discovers that his wife is having an affair. He orchestrates her murder and arranges to be arrested by the same cop whom his wife was having an affair with. The wife survives but remains in a coma, while Crawford is charged with attempted murder. When the case is presented to deputy district attorney William Beachum (Gosling), who is about to leave his job as a public prosecutor for a high-profile post at a respected legal firm, the case looks like a clear slam-and-dunk with a murder weapon and a signed confession, and the confident Beachum barely investigates the case.
However, Crawford elects to represent himself at his own trial, and soon presents evidence which reveals that the cop who arrested and interrogated Crawford was screwing his wife behind his back, making Crawford's signed confession inadmissable in court as fruit of the poisonous tree since it was obtained under duress. On top of that, the murder weapon turns out to be useless due to a clever switcheroo that Crawford performed during the arrest. Beachum sees his life crash around him due to his own hubris and a murderer walks free, as he desperately tries to find another way to put Crawford behind bars.
This film provides examples of:
- Big Damn Heroes: Subverted. As Crawford is going to remove his wife's life support, Beachum receives a court order barring Crawford to do so. He drives to the hospital at full speed, but he arrives just too late to save her.
- Break the Haughty:
- Beachum is riding high on life, convinced he can do no wrong as he prepares to leave the District Attorney's office for a job with a prestigious law firm. He takes on Crawford's case rather carelessly, convinced that it's an open-and-shut case with ironclad evidence—so he's taken completely by surprise when all the evidence gets yanked out from under him. The case destroys his new career with the law firm before it can start, leaving Beachum completely humbled.
- Crawford spends the entire film two steps ahead of the police and prosecutors, so sure of his own machinations that he barely pays attention at his own trial. But at the very end, when he realizes he overlooked one legal loophole—which Beachum now intends to exploit—he shows genuine fear for the first time.
- Cellphones Are Useless: The protagonist attempts to get, and eventually receives, a court order barring the suspect's wife/victim from being removed from life support. Rather than phoning the hospital, the protagonist drives there, and by the time he arrives, the wife is dead.
- Cool Car: Crawford drives a Porsche Carrera GT. Beachum drives a 1974 BMW 3.0 CSi.
- Driven to Suicide: Detective Nunally kills himself when Crawford gets acquitted.
- Establishing Character Moment: The very first scene shows Crawford briefly examining an X-ray of a failed aircraft part, circling a particular point and telling his colleagues that was the point of failure. When asked if he wants to wait to see if he was right, he casually says "nope" and drives off. Both his hubristic confidence and his ability to quickly identify weaknesses are key parts of his character.
- Eureka Moment: Downplayed, but D.A. Lobruto's sardonic "Technically, you only let him get away with attempted murder," is what clues Beachum in to a technicality he can nail Crawford with.
- Evil Is Petty: William notes that there was no practical reason for Crawford to take Jennifer off of life support. It was just a way to Kick the Dog.
- Fatal Flaw: Overconfidence, a trait shared by both William and Crawford. It comes back to bite them both hard at separate points in the movie.
- A Fool for a Client: Ted Crawford decides to represent himself in an attempted murder trial, and he does it very effectively. He manages to get himself acquitted despite a signed confession, a murder weapon, and motive.
The way he was able to do this was that the investigating detective was sleeping with the victim (the killer's wife) making the confession suspect when the detective's testimony of it was undermined, and the murder weapon had never been fired (he had switched it with the detective's weapon as they were identical models). As for motive, without evidence it's useless. This was helped by the fact that the prosecutor had his foot out the door as he was about to get a job at a prestigious law firm and wasn't taking the case very seriously due to the mountain of evidence. Crawford also purposely used an Obfuscating Stupidity angle to appear like an easy win to the haughty and uninterested public prosecutor.
When the prosecutor then finds a way to try Crawford for murder, Crawford hires a defense team of 4+ lawyers. He no longer has the tricks available that got him acquitted the first time. Both times rely on Hollywood Law.
- Foreshadowing: Early on, William tells the story of how he was prosecuting a man with connections to a high-powered law firm. When the defendant tried to bribe him with introductions to some prominent people, he accepted, causing the guy to underprepare for the case, which allowed him to win an easy conviction. This foreshadows William falling prey to the same kind of overconfidence.
- Framing the Guilty Party: Detective Nunally suggests they plant evidence to insure Crawford gets convicted when the case is going south. Beachum refuses though.
- Gambit Roulette: The plot requires that the correct cop be called into the scene of a murder, recognize the victim as the woman he was having an affair with, and then attack her husband. Furthermore, it required that he not kill her husband, but be sufficiently angry to not notice that the husband was switching their guns. Only parts of the gambit get justified: when the cop walks into the house, one of the first things he sees is a gigantic portrait of the victim, making it impossible for him not to recognize her, and Crawford makes sure he gets attacked by needling him.
- Hoist by His Own Petard: Crawford could have walked away scot-free, if he hadn't taken his wife off life support. Her death allowed Beachum to obtain the bullet from her brain, and prove that Crawford swapped his gun with Nunally's—and opened Crawford up to prosecution for murder, removing his protection under double jeopardy law. William lampshades how needlessly petty and counterproductive taking Jennifer off of life support was.
- Hollywood Law: As noted in this blog post from The Volokh Conspiracy, the movie kind of runs on this.
- Ted Crawford reveals that the officer who arrested him, Nunally, had been sleeping with his wife, and claims that his confession was therefore coerced, at which point the Judge quickly rules that confession inadmissible evidence. More realistically, the validity of the confession would have been determined at an evidence hearing, where the police would have the chance to argue that no coercion occurred. It's entirely possible the confession would still have been thrown out, but it would be ridiculously overconfident of Crawford to assume that outcome.
- Even with an inadmissible confession and a completely missing murder weapon, Crawford's motion for an immediate acquittal was bogus, because there was still circumstantial evidence: Crawford had a motive to kill his wife, and multiple eyewitnesses could testify that Ted Crawford was the only other person present when his wife was shot. A good prosecutor could have convicted Crawford on just that evidence, or at the very least, Beachum could have used that to continue the trial long enough to dig up even better evidence.
- After Crawford is acquitted, he removes his comatose wife from life support, since he's her next-of-kin. This blithely ignores that the standards of evidence for determining next-of-kin could be different, so he might still be barred from making such life-and-death decisions on her behalf even after being being acquitted of the criminal charges.
- Beachum gets a court order to stop Crawford from pulling the plug, but hospital security prevents him from entering the room, and the wife dies. Security guards would get in big trouble for stopping someone waving a court order at them.
- Finally, Beachum obtains new evidence (the bullet from the wife's brain), looks up exceptions to double jeopardy law, and finds a way to prosecute Crawford: by charging him for murder, since his last trial was just for attempted murder. The movie closes with Crawford on trial again, this time with the expectation that he'll be found guilty and justice will be served. But this loophole doesn't hold up. Attempted murder is a lesser included offence to murder, meaning it merges with the other. Thus, if you're acquitted of one, it applies to the other as well. Collateral estoppel also applies: Beachum can't re-litigate any facts that were found in Crawford's favor by the first acquittal. Beachum might be able to argue that Crawford's removing his wife from life-support was a premeditated act of murder, but he has to do so without contradicting the court's earlier ruling of a lack of evidence to convict Crawford of shooting her—hardly the slam-dunk that the film's ending implies.
- Locked Room Mystery: A variation. The gun found at the scene of the crime had never been fired, yet Crawford never left his house after the murder, and several extensive searches of the house turned up no other weapons. So how did Crawford make his murder weapon disappear, without ever leaving his house? He bought a handgun identical to Detective Nunally's police-issued weapon, swapped his and Nunally's gun a few hours before the murder, used Nunally's gun to commit the crime, then used a moment of confusion during the arrest to swap the guns back.
- Malicious Misnaming: Crawford repeatedly refers to William Beachum as "Willy" to mock him as a little boy trying to play games with an older genius such as him. Beachum tries to convince Crawford that he has no problem with it, but it's clear that he does.
- Obfuscating Stupidity: As part of his scheme, Crawford initially presents himself as a layman unacquainted with courtroom procedures but who decided to represent himself in court by exercising his basic rights, presumably out of hubris. When he later pushes for an acquittal based on lack of admissible evidence by the prosecution, he reveals that he has quite a bit of legal expertise, which the annoyed judge quickly notices. You can especially see it when he uses the legal phrase "motion for judgment of acquittal", not having demonstrated any familiarity with them earlier.
- The Perfect Crime: Crawford is caught at the scene of the murder, with a smoking gun, and he confesses to the crime at the police station afterwards. Yet he makes his murder weapon and signed confession disappear, allowing him to get away. Almost.
- Reverse Whodunnit: "I killed my wife... Prove it."
- Small Role, Big Impact: Mrs. Crawford is shot in the first ten minutes and spends the rest of the film in a coma, but is central to the plot.
- Smug Snake: The film shows a good contrast between a Smug Snake and a Magnificent Bastard (or, considering how he screws everything up at the end, a much more high-functioning Smug Snake). The former is a smarmy prosecutor who believes he has gotten a completely open-and-shut case, and consequently has not bothered to do his job properly. The latter is a murderer who believes he has made himself untouchable despite the case against him seeming to be bulletproof, and is not worried about showing how confident he is. The reason you are almost rooting for the murderer is because his arrogance comes from having planned everything very carefully, rather than smugly assuming he's going to win. The fact that he's played by Anthony Hopkins certainly helps.
- Shoutout: Beachum wears a tuxedo when he first comes to the court for the Crawford case. At some point, the judge calls him 007.
- You Are Too Late: Beachum arrives too late at the hospital to prevent Crawford from removing his wife's life support.
- Your Cheating Heart: Crawford's wife has an affair with Nunally. Crawford finds it out and decides to murder his wife.
- What Happened to the Mouse?: Nunally off-handily mentions he's married with children. Early on, he asks Jennifer to run away with him, and later kills himself, with his family never mentioned again.