© 2010 Ray Wong
Disguised (and mis-marketed, in my opinion) as a suspense-thriller, The Next Three Days is in reality a strongly character-driven family drama that examines the unjustness of our justice system.
John (Russell Crowe) and Lara Brennan (Elizabeth Banks) are a happy couple raising a young son Luke (Ty Simpkins) in Pittsburgh, PA. Then Lara is arrested and convicted for murdering her boss. After almost three years, the evidence, albeit all circumstantial, is too strong, and their final repeal is denied. After Lara tries to kill herself and running out of options, John decides the only way to find justice is by breaking Lara out of prison.
John starts to gather information and device a plan. He seeks out Damon Pennington (Liam Neeson), a famed jail-breaker. Pennington's advice is solid but grim: Pittsburgh is one of the toughest cities to attempt an escape, and he doubts John, a community college teacher, has what it takes to carry out a well-executed plan.
Uncertain himself, John decides to move forward, as his wife is being transferred out of Pittsburgh in only three days. His inexperiences and nerves almost cost him his own freedom or, worse, life. Guided by his love for his family, he realizes there's only one way out, and that's to stay focused and keep going until they're free or dead.
Russell Crowe (Robin Hood) is in top form as the devoted family man and teacher-turn-criminal. His performance, while not a powerhouse as that in Gladiators or even Insider, is commendable for its intensity, internal conflict and subtlety. Crowe is not playing a larger-than-life action hero; he's playing an ordinary man forced to take extreme measures. He's convincing and gets our sympathy immediately.
Elizabeth Banks (The Uninvited) is good, but not great, as Lara. Hers is a tough role to play -- a loving wife and mother who has been wrongfully convicted of murder and incarcerated for life. Banks does a good job with her scenes, but her character is not fully written, and thus there's something missing in her characterization. It almost feels contrived.
The support cast is all good. Olivia Wilde (TRON: Legacy) is beautiful and gentle as a mother who has the hots for John. Liam Neeson (The A-Team) has a very small, gruff role as Pennington. Brian Dennehy (Every Day) is wonderfully stoic as John's father. And Jason Beghe (Medium) successfully channels Ed Harris as a sympathetic detective.
The screenplay by Oscar-winning writer-director Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby) is a solid character-driven piece. Perhaps that's at once its biggest strength and problem. The film is heavily marketed as a suspense-thriller. While there are definitely suspense and thrills, especially in the final act, the movie is really a personal drama about family and priorities, and to some extent about our justice system. Haggis's screenplay is full of great personal moments and emotional subtleties, but because of them, the plot drags, and feels rather repetitive at times.
And as a suspense-thriller, there are the obligatory plot holes and implausibilities. He tries too hard to cast doubt about Lara's innocence -- her abrasive personality, etc. It's not necessary; it's not what this story is about. As a Pittsburgh native, I have to seriously suspend my disbelief. Some of the plot twists would never make sense if the story actually happened. However, by then we're so emotionally involved with the characters that we don't care. We just want them to get away.
Haggis's direction is fluid and personal, with lots of close-ups and intimate moments. That said, I think he dwells on those moments too much and they drag down the storytelling. How many times do we need to be reminded that John and Lara love each other? It's like he wants to hit us over and over again how John will do anything for Lara, and that's unnecessary; it only bogs down the plot. What is interesting, however, is when John screws up. Every time John makes a mistake, every time he almost gets caught, the tension is palpable. If Haggis had stayed focused on that plight, it would have been a stronger movie.
Expectations be damned -- those who are looking for a taut, twisty thriller may be disappointed, and those looking for an intimate family drama may miss out on this. I think the movie has been botched by the marketing. I suppose the box office record in the next few days or weeks will tell us if I'm right.
Stars: Russell Crowe, Elizabeth Banks, Olivia Wilde, Liam Neeson, Brian Dennehy, Jason Beghe
Director: Paul Haggis
Writers: Paul Haggis (based on Pour elle written by Fred Cavayé and Guillaume Lemans)
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence, drug material, language, sexuality and thematic elements
Running Time: 128 minutes
Script – 7
Performance – 8
Direction – 8
Cinematography – 8
Editing – 8
Production – 8
Total – 7.8 out of 10