Over-burdened prisons and DNA technology certify that sometimes the cops get it wrong – innocent people do go to prison. That’s the premise of Paul Haggis’ new film The Next Three Days adapted from the 2008 French film Pour Elle (Anything for Her).
Aisha Hinds & Elizabeth Banks
John (Russell Crowe) and Lara (Elizabeth Banks) Brennan are a devoted couple experiencing modern day life. John, an English professor at a Pittsburgh community college, likes to go beyond the subject and delve into deeper meanings. When we first meet Lara, we learn she works in the corporate world and seems troubled by problems with her female boss. At home there’s a tender scene between John and his son Luke (Tyler & Toby Green) that reveals John as a tender and loving father. However, the family harmony turns into a volcanic eruption when law enforcement officers burst through the door and arrest Lara for murder. She drops the jacket she’s trying to rinse blood from as they drag her out the door shoving off an interfering John.
Ty Simpkins & Elizabeth Banks
The story then jumps ahead three years. Lara, somewhat complacent in jail, becomes disturbed when she learns there will be no appeal of her case. A mountain of pressure descends on John when Lara tries to commit suicide and Luke no longer talks to his mother who is soon to be moved away to a state prison.
Although the premise is the same as in Anything for Her, Haggis (Crash, Letters from Iwo Jima, Million Dollar Baby) brings to this project an undeniable talent for raising the bar with action-thrillers and lots of plot twists. After the film, I had fun thinking about what first seemed like plot holes and realizing they are really well thought-out actions by Crowe’s character.
Haggis’ choice to cast Russell Crowe as John was a wise one. John realizes he’s about to take the biggest risk of his life by breaking his wife out of prison. In Crowe’s proficient performance, we see the progressive but meticulous journey he plots on his living room wall after his lengthy research. Like getting into the deeper meaning of the subjects he teaches or asking himself the question he asked his students -- “What if we chose to exist in a reality completely of our own making?” -- John uses intelligence to overcome his desperation plus a love that is never compromised to counterbalance his hopelessness.
“I was really struck by the conundrum John Brennan faces,” Crowe said about his character. “This man has an undying love for his wife and would do anything to save her. Yet to achieve what he has to achieve, he must turn into somebody she may not love. To me, that was an interesting journey to go on.”
I really liked the chemistry Crowe develops with older son Luke, played by Ty Simpkins. Crowe convinces us that John navigates a minefield of humility, worry, guilt and extraordinary love while always keeping Luke foremost in his plans, which will change their lives forever.
Although little is seen of Lara throughout the movie, Banks does well in repeatedly showing Lara’s short temper, a frame of mind that leaves the door of did-she-do-it always open. Unfortunately, Liam Neeson and Brian Dennehy fans are very short changed with the brief appearances of these actors. Neeson has only a few moments as an ex-con and repeated prison escapee who explains an encyclopedia of steps John needs to achieve his goal. As John’s aloof father, Dennehy is seen in only a few scenes that really fuel the story.
Liam Neeson & Russell Crowe
The city of Pittsburgh -- at work, home, and in dark dangerous scenes -- clearly emerges as a character in this film. European cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine excels at making most of the scenes feel believable, although some are a tad long, especially the unrealistic and drawn-out police pursuit by overwrought Lieutenant Nabulsi (Lennie James). This operation could not have happened in a matter of hours as portrayed, and the result is too clichéd.
Because some of John’s decisions in the story remain debatable, there’s certainly a host of questions one asks while watching the film. How far would you go in the name of love and family? Can you live with decisions that of your own actions cross the line? Is it fair to risk one family member for another?
These dilemmas along with a solid story, terrific performances plus clever and suspenseful twists you never see coming make The Next Three Days very enjoyable.
Photo credits: Phil Caruso / Lionsgate