The Next Three Days
by Sean Lechowicz
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Paul Haggis, writer/director of the Oscar darling “Crash”, is a name synonymous with unavoidable ham-handed social commentary. However, his latest “The Next Three Days” proves that he should steer clear from brashly shouting against racism on a megaphone and stick to suspense film making.
College English professor John Brennan (Russell Crowe), his wife Lara (Elizabeth Banks), and their young son Luke (Ty Simpkins) are the perfect portrait of American suburbia, white picket fence and all. Their world is rocked when Lara is convicted for murdering her boss and imprisoned for life. John, believing Lara’s innocent, devotes his life to freeing his soul mate through any means possible.
The director doesn’t rush us into exciting car chases and gunfire. Instead, he let’s us get to know the Brennan’s and feel every chink in their armor. After a tumultuous visit to the cooler, Lara hysterically tells John that he’s wasting his time worrying about her. After such a downer, we see scenes of John grading his student’s papers. Imagine having to balance raising a six-year-old kid, grading English essays, and paying taxes with trying to prove your incarcerated wife’s innocence.
John isn’t a superman; he’s just an average Joe faced with impossible circumstances. On a routine visit with his wife, John flubs his first attempt at freeing her with a key that can virtually open any door. He’s caught on surveillance and confronted by the warden. This isn’t Sean Connery from “The Rock”; he’s just a guy who loves his wife enough to risk losing everything for her happiness. He screws up, just like any non-professional criminal would.
Luke hardly speaks to anyone; he’s damaged goods. Mommy’s making license plates and daddy spends most of his time learning how to break into jail, not a well-adjusted environment. Ty Simpkins never over-sentimentalizes Luke, but rather acts how any child would act in this instance: he keeps to himself, choosing to live in his own mental world.
When we first see Luke visiting Lara, he doesn’t mutter a syllable to her. Instead, he plays with Legos while John and Lara hash it out. The heartache on Lara’s face after receiving the cold shoulder from her kid is especially powerful. Here’s a woman wrongfully jailed and all she wants is a heartfelt hug from her little boy.
Both Crowe and Banks bring their A-games, knowing how to convey tragedy with just their facial expressions. The audience falls in love with this family, cheering for John every step of the way. Still, when Crowe and Banks are together, their performances don’t quite click together. They have an awkward chemistry, never looking quite right next to one another. We believe John loves Lara when he’s alone, but when co-existing on screen, it just looks like a grizzly bear attacking a talk show hostess.
Haggis keeps raising the stakes for John, pitting him in inescapable situations. As a result, “The Next Three Days” is astonishingly unpredictable. The director plants seeds that the audience isn’t aware are being planted. John makes numerous stops at a medical van at a local hospital, breaking in the back and rummaging through his wife’s medical records, while timing his trips with a stop watch. When the pay off comes for this scene, you’ll be ‘ooo-ing’ at its craftiness.
The film is usually fifteen steps ahead of its audience, so whenever short cuts are taken in the script, they are blaringly obvious. John learns how to break into an armored van by watching videos on Youtube. I’m sure this was meant as a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the vast accessibility of the internet, but it has no place in such a heavy flick and just comes off as lazy storytelling. Likewise, John learns his prison break strategy from escaped convict turned author Damon Pennington (Liam Neeson). The two meet at a coffee shop to strategize a big time crime, how logical! It’s alluded that Damon is now a reputable personality in the media, so why would he risk losing that to help some random guy break the law?
Plot-holes and all, “The Next Three Days” was crafted to excite audiences, for which it is successful. Once the plan is in full swing, you’ll be riveted, forgetting any of its shortcomings. Haggis proves to be a master puzzle maker and has finally found his cinematic niche.
Sean Lechowicz is a film critic and screenwriter from Chicago, as well as the world’s biggest Wall-E geek.
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