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The Next Three Days

November 20, 2010

The Next Three Days

With Conviction fresh in our minds (and maybe even still in theaters), The Next Three Days shows us the big-budget Hollywood version of the rescue-from-prison story. It’s instructive to compare the two.

Instead of a woman saving her brother it’s a man, John Brennan (Russell Crowe) rescuing his wife, Lara (Elizabeth Banks), from prison; a run-of-the-mill damsel in distress story. Instead of a long, slow, methodical journey we get an action-packed escape plan with stunts and gunplay for John to show his dominance over the situation. And instead of amassing allies to reinforce the plan, John cuts all the ties that he doesn’t find personally useful.

It’s also not based on a true story, but instead is adapted by writer-director Paul Haggis from Fred Cavayé’s Pour elle. Clearly the title had to be changed, because nothing John does is ever really “for her” on any level except the surface. Everything that happens is about and reflects back on him. Crowe alternates pained and concerned faces, and is barely off the screen for a scene. The one time his face wasn’t in-focus, Banks’ face was halfway off the lower edge of the screen; we’re instructed to pay attention only to the man, even in the background.

Lara’s the one in prison, but this is John’s journey to make to become the man that an expert jailbreaker (Liam Neeson) tells him he must be to pull off the escape. Even Lara’s most dramatic moment — a suicide attempt early on — only serves as motivation for John rather than any exploration of her mindset. Other than her clothes and hair, she could be doing a stint at Crossroads instead of Allegheny County Jail for all we learn of her experience.

So yes, we’re supposed to admire John for the truly extraordinary things he does for this woman he loves. But why does he do them in the first place? Haggis makes clear in the short time before her arrest that their marriage is affectionate and close, but that’s really all we get. He just loves her because he loves her and stop asking all these questions. Contrast this with Conviction, which is shot through with flashbacks filling in its main characters’ relationship and helps us understand why Betty Anne would devote herself so thoroughly to rescuing her brother. It’s a far more satisfying and meaningful approach.

To be fair, The Next Three Days waves its hands in the general direction of Meaning when John discusses Don Quixote with his class. In a soliloquy with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, he opines that only the irrational man doing irrational things — like breaking his wife out of prison — has a chance in an irrational world where almost nothing is actually under our control.

Or something like that; the script doesn’t really do anything with this beyond the one scene. There’s a lot that gets brought up only to go unused. Hints are dropped about a relationship between two side characters, but to actually make that relationship mean anything would take screen time away from Crowe, which can’t be allowed. There are two separate teams of detectives in play, which don’t really add anything to each other. And there’s a completely generic and pointless redemption story between John and his father (Brian Dennehy), which again is more development than his relationship with his own wife gets.

After an hour and a half of dawdling, we do get the promised prison break sequence, which is utterly forgettable. There’s some assertive action on John’s part, some earlier setup scenes getting their payoffs, and of course a touch of misdirection. But the plan doesn’t snap together like a finely-crafted Swiss watch, the way the best heist/breakout stories do. There’s really no reason it should work, and no reason the movie should either.

Worth it: no.
Bechdel test: fail. I have a hard time saying there’s even one character other than John in this one.

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