Monday, November 22, 2010

Movie Review: The Next Three Days

The Next Three Days ***
Directed by:
Paul Haggis.
Written By: Paul Haggis based on the screenplay by Fred Cavayé and Guillaume Lemans.
Starring: Russell Crowe (John Brennan), Elizabeth Banks (Lara Brennan), Jason Beghe (Detective Quinn), Aisha Hinds (Detective Collero), Ty Simpkins (Luke), Olivia Wilde (Nicole), Daniel Stern (Meyer Fisk), Helen Carey (Grace Brennan), Brian Dennehy (George Brennan), Liam Neeson (Damon Pennington), RZA (Mouss), Kevin Corrigan (Alex).

Paul Haggis’ The Next Three Days is different from pretty much every prison break movie I have ever seen before. The actual break represents only about a third of its running time – most of the movie is about Russell Crowe’s John Brennan, a mild mannered college professor, planning the break out of his wife, and discovering just what exactly he is capable of. During the course of the movie, he has to do things he had never even considered before – and the movie asks what price Brennan is willing to pay to get his wife out of jail – not in terms of money, but in regards to his own humanity.

The movie dives into its story fairly quickly. Brennan’s wife Lara (Elizabeth Banks) is arrested for murdering her boss in the film’s opening scenes – and then we flash forward. Her trail is over, her appeals exhausted and she’s still in jail with no way of getting out. John has never questioned his wife’s innocence, and now believes that he has no choice but to try and find a way to break her out. He talks to a man who has broken out lots of prisons (Liam Neeson) and starts to formulate his own plan. He does this even though they have a six year old son. He needs his wife – who has gone from a perky, blonde bombshell into a depressed, suicidal woman. And to him, that is worth any price.

I found the movie fascinating – not just because of the way Haggis shows Brennan planning the unthinkable, but also in the way he sketches his characters. Haggis admittedly made all of the characters in his breakout film Crash into stereotypes, but in most of the movies he has written, he does make them into interesting, three dimensional people and not just the cookie cutter characters we normally see in a thriller. Through the course of the movie, Crowe’s Brennan transforms before our eyes from a non-violent man, into someone capable of committing murder. The question that remains unanswered by the end of the film is whether he’ll be able to make his way back again – into the man his wife loves, and who his son needs. It is one of Crowe’s best performances – at the heart of practically every scene of the movie. It’s watching this man that makes the movies as good as it is.

There are problems with the film though – the chief one being I never could quite accept that John would do this because of his six year old son. Any parent will tell you that when you have kids, their needs come first, and you have to set aside your own needs for their well being. John takes a huge risk – a risk that could permanently damage his child much more than he already is because of his mother being convicted of murder. I somehow feel the movie would have been more effective had the child not been there at all. Plus, as good as Crowe is in the movie – and he is pretty damn great – I think it may have worked even better with a different actor there. Haggis is obviously trying to show us an everyman doing this – not an action star, but a regular Joe to heighten the impact of the film, but then why choose the muscle bound Crowe to play the lead? Why not someone like Paul Giamatti, who really would have driven the point home. I also would have liked a little more ambiguity about Banks’ guilt or innocence. Haggis plays with this throughout the movie, but by the end, it is pretty clear cut, and I wish he would have left it open.
Yet, despite these problems, The Next Three Days remains a fascinating, intelligent movie – much more so than most thrillers of its ilk. As a director, this could be Haggis’ best work behind the camera. I thought that in both his previous films – Crash and In the Valley of Elah – Haggis’s direction was too straight forward, at times too on the nose (like the upside down flag that ends Elah) to be truly effective. And what’s more, a little too TV movie to be truly cinematic (this shouldn’t surprise anyone, since Haggis has an extensive TV background). But in The Next Three Days, all of that is gone. For the first time in his career, Haggis has made a movie that feels like a movie, and not something that airs on HBO.

There are also some wonderful little touches in the films. I liked Olivia Wilde’s performance as a single parent who eyes Crowe first with sexual interest, then skepticism and finally sympathy – Wilde does this all with her face, and not her words. I loved Brian Dennehy as Crowe’s nearly silent father. The two have never really figured out how to speak to each other, but it practically brought a tear to my eye when Dennehy hugs Crowe and tells him simply “Goodbye” as he has pieced together what Crowe plans on doing. It’s a truly heartbreaking little moment.

The Next Three Days is not a great film. It is too flawed for that. And yet, in the nearly 24 hours since I have seen it, it is a film that will not leave my mind. I keep replaying scenes of it in my head. Yes, it’s flawed, but it is unlikely that you will find a more complex thriller out there right now.

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