Russell Crowe stars but Elizabeth Banks stuns in Paul Haggis’ uneven melodrama.
For whatever comment it makes on the current state of American movies, The Next Three Days deserves at least some credit for offering a story to adult audiences that doesn’t include a mysterious disease, contrived family dynamics, or a twist ending that warps the characters’ motivations into a post-ironic jumble. Though the film isn’t perfect – it’s too sluggish in its first half and too scattered in its second – it’s intermittently entertaining and at times, sometimes despite itself, riveting in its suspense and character exploration. Strictly as a rental, it’s a good use of your money.
The setup is almost irresistible for fans of the pulpy thriller: community college professor John Brennan (Russell Crowe) lives a peaceful existence in Pittsburgh with his wife Lara (Elizabeth Banks) and son Luke (Ty Simpkins). Lara has a fiery temper with other women, but when police arrest her for the murder of her boss John stands by her, bankrupting the family savings obtaining appeals while raising Luke alone. Lara, a diabetic, suffers with the guilt and isolation of three years of waiting in the city’s mammoth country jail, her spirits kept buoyed only by her family visits.
Still, her hopes continue to sink, slowly but surely, and John starts formulating a plan to free her. Much of the film’s second half-hour depicts his halting and sometimes foolhardy attempts to plan a jailbreak: the failed experiments prompted by YouTube tutorial videos, his own naivety, bad circumstances. As a criminal John is, at first, something of a wash, and the script mines unusual sympathy in depicting his everyman academic approach to crime fail humbly and miserably.
John searches out the help of enigmatic ex-con Damon Pennington (Liam Neeson), who we learn has staged seven escape attempts but couldn’t live with the fear of getting caught again. The advice he gives, cynically and without hesitation, is so logical and pragmatic in its efficiency that John is immediately taken in, inspired as much as convinced that his plan is feasible. Neeson makes the most of his single scene. He doesn’t do anything you haven’t seen him do before, but it’s effective for what’s required, as are turns by Daniel Stern as the family lawyer and Brian Dennehy as John’s father. (It’s a shame that the once perennial Dennehy no longer makes many screen appearances. He’s a paragon American character actor.)
Though adapted from the 2008 French Film Pour Elle, Haggis and screenwriters Fred Cavaye and Guillaume Lemans (creators of the original) wisely avoid Americanizing their leads with a lot of wealth and sex appeal. John and Lara are a middle class family in a middle class town, working not particularly lucrative jobs and living in a relatively simple house. If they were affluent the film would appear so much more disingenuous, and John’s desperation that much more specious. Their relative poverty puts a cold light on the necessity of their actions.
Those actions, unfortunately, are ultimately too few and far between and too lethargic in its execution to emerge as more than occasionally suspenseful viewing. The lack of suspense is partly visual: Pittsburgh’s windy autumn streets and cozy Craftsman homes seem too languid for the events within them; even a meth lab appears relatively Americana. Crowe, though nimble in portraying a loving father and husband, seldom allows John’s dread and panic to boil over. It’s a performance that’s perhaps too reserved and deliberate to compellingly work.
By way of comparison Banks displays formidable dramatic talent in the tougher of the two roles, explaining in a handful of scenes why John would move heaven and earth to save her. We can also understand, thanks to an awkwardly staged prologue that displays Lara’s anger, why her innocence might seem, to some, a little suspect. You might spend a lot of the film waiting for her to admit she’s guilty; she does, but Haggis, Cavaye and Lemans put a sharp touch on the scene you might not expect. Banks has so far had few chances to display her dramatic chops (Oliver Stone’s disorganized W. notwithstanding), but here she more than keeps up with Crowe’s formidable screen presence. Taking into account her comedic prowess, she’s a formidable talent; alongside Michelle Monaghan and Gretchen Mol, she might be one of the most unfairly unsung actresses currently working.
The plot does pick up steam once John sets his plans in motion, beginning with a taut sequence in which he robs a drug dealer (Kevin Corrigan) of the money he’ll need to carry out the escape. And, as with films such as Ocean’s 11 and the Mission: Impossible series, there’s a satisfaction in watching his best laid plans come to fruition (many details of which are too inventive to spoil here.) But there’s story waiting to unfold after Lara is free, much of it hers, and if the film drags on to the last moment – including an exculpatory denouement that goes on entire minutes longer than it needs – they’re additional time for Banks to prove herself again and again, so you probably won’t mind.
Seen as a group, Haggis’ films have a habit of overreaching – In The Valley of Elah, Quantum of Solace, Crash, to name a few – and while here the film’s objective seems a little fuzzier in comparison the results are perhaps as a result just vaguely underwhelming. Crowe could use a good film about now, and Banks deserves one, but it’s not this one. Still, at the risk of damning it with faint praise if you’ve got the time to spend it’s worth your time to watch.