"It Doesn't Matter What We Believe"
Director Paul Haggis you either love or you hate. The haters find him manipulative and obvious (I'll buy the second charge, but movies, even documentaries, are—du-uh!—manipulative by their very nature) and will never forgive him for making Crash, which beat out Brokeback Mountain for the Best Picture Oscar.* The lovers, well, there aren't too many of them outside the movie industry—but Clint Eastwood and the Bond producers love him, and that's good enough for me.
His third film, The Next Three Days, which he wrote and directed,** tells the story of a couple (with child) who are separated, when she (Elizabeth Banks) is arrested, tried and convicted for murder. Her husband (Russell Crowe), a school teacher, exhausts their finances—selling two homes—and all legal recourses, trying to prove her innocence. After three years of incarceration, her child doesn't even acknowledge her (having lived half his life without her), and after her last appeal is turned down, she attempts suicide.
Time to think outside the box...the legal system, and the penal system. The civilized courses have failed...as a matter of course. It's time to take action, and matters...into one's own hands.
In a way, this is the same movie Haggis has been making all along, his thesis converted into an action plot device more positive in its usage than negative in its omission. Both Crash and In the Valley of Elah feature protagonists trying to do more than the expected by-the-book (or society) response, to subvert the easy knee-jerk "comfortable" reaction, and (I dunno) think a little deeper. He seeks the help of a multi-prison escapee (Liam Neeson, in a too-short cameo), who gives him a broad picture of the strategies of going over the wall, and more importantly, staying out. One of the first things he says may be what's written on the first page of Haggis' screenwriting notebook, as it informs so much of his work: "You have to do a lot of lookin'—things that disrupt the day-to-day routine." That semi-somnambulent day-to-day routine has been the loam Haggis has toiled in over the years, and in this film, he finds a protagonist who tries to take advantage of it, rather than subvert it.***
It's a heist film, basically, with human valuables. It is also, for a brief time, an "incredible mess" movie as Crowe's John Brennan must—painfully—learn the ropes of the outlaw life (and occasionally be beaten with them). This pays off later in the film—well, nearly everything pays off later in the film—as the "anything that could go wrong" scenarios start piling up in the film's nerve-rattling desperate finale, and one remembers how those early efforts only served to make matters worse. The barriers that Brennan must overcome are represented by a filming scheme that places so much of the film behind screens and windows of various opacities—a traditional trope of prison films (it just doesn't happen so much out in the so-called open, as it does in here—Haggis wants us to know there are traps inside and outside prison).
Great cast. Crowe is nicely casual initially, then gradually turns into the ragged obsessive/compulsive he needs to be, Banks does drama as well as she does comedy (very), and, beyond Neeson, there are nice cameos by Daniel Stern, Olivia Wilde (as a divorcee...really?)...and particularly, Brian Dennehy, who, with the least amount of dialogue, makes the most of his scenes.
There will, no doubt, be an increase in interest in "bump"-keys, and breaking into vehicles with tennis-balls, and Haggis even throws a bone to his critics by purposely leaving a plot-thread frustratingly unresolved. It's a good film, professionally done, and with enough twists and turns to keep one engaged, while still taking the time—one of the critical elements the film focusses on—to keep things realistic, and not turning the down-to-earth perps into clairvoyant superheroes. I'd say it was a matinee if the scope reached a bit more, but, as it is...
The Next Three Days is a Rental. A good one.
* A decision I've always agreed with: I think Crash was reaching for something to say—especially about the 7-10 split of a city that is Los Angeles, and the casualness of racism as the easy way out. Brokeback Mountain, although I admired its photography and I thought Heath Ledger had the best cowboy voice in movie history (great work, that—Jake Gyllenhaal, not so much) felt too much like a Joan Crawford movie in reverse-drag. Mellerdrama at its sawdustiest.
** After Crash and In the Valley of Elah, The Next Three Days is not original—it is based on the French film Pour Elle (Anything for Her, 2008)
*** Even a late-minute extreme act by one of the protagonists is an expression of trying to break out of the routine, to think outside the box (or in this case, the van) and break the lock-step the other is in.