Next Three Days, The (United States, 2010)November 18, 2010
The Next Three Days, Paul Haggis' adaptation of the 2008 French film, Anything for Her, uses an interesting concept as a cornerstone of the foundation. Instead of employing a seasoned professional as the lead character of this heist thriller, the movie makes the protagonist a rank amateur. He's an everyman sort and, like any normal individual placed in this situation, he makes a lot of mistakes. Thrillers about break-ins (or, in this case, a breakout) often dwell on the brilliance of the plot, which can at times be Rube Goldberg-esque in its cleverness and complexity. That's not the case here, where instances of brilliance are offset by blunders. Unfortunately, attempts at "realism" are thwarted by an overreliance upon coincidence. Nevertheless, especially as the movie shifts into high gear during its final 30 minutes, The Next Three Days offers enough suspense to make it worth the price of admission.
The Next Three Days begins with an out-of-context scene of a blood-spattered man driving a car erratically, then flashes back three years to begin the tale of how he got to that point. John (Russell Crowe) and his wife, Laura (Elizabeth Banks), are dining out. She's in a bad mood because of a knock-down argument she had with her boss earlier - one that will likely result in her losing her job. By the next morning, however, things have calmed down - until the police barge through the front door and arrest Laura for murder. The next time we encounter her, she has already been tried and convicted, and the appeal is not going well. Dragged down by a whirlpool of despair, she tries to kill herself. At that point, John decides he must take action, desperate though it may be. He contacts a notorious prison escapee (Liam Neeson) and hears firsthand what it takes to break out. After that, John begins plotting how to spring Laura from her current incarceration and, after that, how to escape with her and their son to a country that does not have an extradition treaty with the United States.
It's intriguing to watch a movie in which all the steps in John's ambitious plan do not go like clockwork. His inept attempts at obtaining a fake passport prove to be physically dangerous. Later, an ill-advised run-through of a critical phase fails and puts the police on notice that he's up to something. We're not used to seeing a protagonist this flawed in an action movie. In many ways, it adds a layer to the tension because, having seen how easily John can screw up, there's no sense of inevitability about how things will end. The pre-ordained conclusion one would expect from a more traditional thriller is not mandated here.
Two things reduce the overall enjoyment quotient. The first is an overuse of coincidence - a frequent flaw of thrillers. Haggis must be drawn to screenplays that are heavy in contrivance; his Crash was steeped in it. The circumstances by which Laura is wrongly accused of murder are an example of a script straying too far into artificiality. She happens to have a public argument with a woman who is later killed. The killer happens to bump into her on the way from the crime, thereby depositing a blood smear on Laura's clothing. The murder weapon happens to be in front of her car when she goes to pull out of a parking space, so when she moves it, she leaves behind fingerprints. And so on... A few coincidences are often not noticed or easily dismissed, but The Next Three Days lathers them on too thickly for them to be cleanly ignored. In fact, the suspense that builds around the climax is dependent upon multiple coincidences. This sort of thing is more noticeable in movies that attempt to inject a dose of "reality" than in those that are unapologetically over-the-top. That's one danger of attempting to ground a thriller; Haggis is not successful in navigating around the pitfall. Fortunately, although it may cause a little head-shaking, it doesn't derail the enterprise.
Secondly, Russell Crowe is miscast. Although his filmography is littered with instances of his playing ordinary human beings as well as macho men, there is something unnatural about the reticence of this character. Crowe's performance feels oddly neutered - it's almost as if there's a conventional action hero lurking just beneath the surface who is never unleashed. For an actor as dynamic as Crowe normally is, it's almost off-putting to see him in a role where there's no magnetism. John is not a strong protagonist and this makes it difficult to identify with him.
The other performers are fine. Elizabeth Banks effectively transitions from gorgeous wife and mother to somewhat bedraggled prisoner (this includes a change of hair color which, I believe, is meant to indicate a decrease in glamour.) Her work here is among the most convincing dramatic acting she has done to date. Liam Neeson is mesmerizing in a one-scene cameo. Olivia Wilde, on hiatus from House, keeps her TV American accent for a strangely underwritten and low-profile role. And it's a pleasure to see Brian Dennehy cast against type as a supportive grandfather.
Both the screenplay and Haggis' direction are littered with red herrings and misdirection, especially during sequences that intercut the police closing in with John's attempts to elude them. The approach hearkens back to Hitchcock, who was a master of this sort of thing. In fact, the movie as a whole has a Hitchcockian edge - the ordinary guy trapped in a web not of his own devising. In Hitchcock's films, however, the heroes tended to be more suave and less bumbling than John.
The Next Three Days will not win Paul Haggis another Academy Award but, flawed though it may be, it offers two solid hours of entertainment, the last quarter of which is genuinely gripping. And, despite its prior cinematic origins, this won't feel like a retread to American audiences (even those who frequent art houses). The original French film did not have a U.S. distributor and has not been released on DVD in North America. The Next Three Days can therefore stand largely on its own - something it achieves with reasonable (if not unqualified) success.
Next Three Days, The (United States, 2010)
Cast: Russell Crowe, Elizabeth Banks, Liam Neeson, Olivia Wilde, Brian Dennehy
Screenplay: Paul Haggis, based on the screenplay Pour Elle by Fred Cavayé and Guillaume Lemans
Cinematography: Stéphane Fontaine
Music: Danny Elfman, Alberto Iglesias
U.S. Distributor: Lionsgate