Film review: The Next Three Days

Duncan Wu suspends his disbelief to enjoy Russell Crowe as a gun-toting, all-action college teacher

December 23, 2010

The Next Three Days

Released in the UK on 5 January 2011

Directed by Paul Haggis

Starring Russell Crowe, Elizabeth Banks, Liam Neeson, Olivia Wilde and Brian Dennehy

"Show me where the bullets go" is quite a funny line when delivered by Russell Crowe in the middle of The Next Three Days. Although it isn't at all funny unless by that point you believe he's one of us - a teacher in a Pittsburgh community college who doesn't belong in the kind of establishment where they sell guns. It's one of the least implausible things about an enjoyable film starring Crowe, whose over-the-hill, gone-to-seed appearance makes him look uncannily like an academic. Still, it may be as well that he has only one scene in the classroom, where we see him teaching Don Quixote. "What's it really about?" he asks his students. "It asks what part of our life is truly under our control. What if we choose to live entirely in a reality of our own making?"

That's as thoughtful a reading of Cervantes as it is an analysis of Crowe's character, John Brennan, whose first name is as unexceptional as the kind of life the film-makers would have us believe he lives. The plot revolves around Brennan's wife Lara, believed to have been unjustly imprisoned for the murder of her boss. Unable to survive without her, Brennan decides to spring her from jail. The conceit is lifted from a French film, Pour Elle (2008), and the US version is faithful to its emphasis on Brennan's ordinariness and that of his family. Indeed, the first half of the film is devoted to illustrating the normality of his daily existence. That it succeeds is due partly to a strong supporting cast, which includes Brian Dennehy as Crowe's father-in-law and Liam Neeson as a former prison escapee.

Brennan is warned at the outset that his attempt to free his wife will change him, and Crowe's thoughtful portrayal of a character who struggles to deal with the impact of criminality on his life is one of the rewards of this film. His encounters with con men, gangsters, passport forgers and drug pushers, often violent, make it hard for him to continue as the law-abiding, middle-class college teacher he once was. Eventually it becomes impossible for him to forge friendships or speak honestly with members of his own family. The film never completely faces up to the implication of this, however. For if Brennan's character is distorted by his experiences, could it remain possible for him afterwards to live a virtuous life with the woman he loves? It's a question the film glosses over because it's less interested in the moral issues than in the mechanics of what, in the end, turns out to be an old-fashioned escape yarn.

"What kind of criminal drives a Prius?" screams one of the detectives hunting Brennan in the last act of the film - as well he might. A number of reviewers have been screaming the same thing, incredulous at the idea that, armed with an iPhone, a Prius and a gun, a college teacher could release an inmate from a high-security prison in the US Midwest. You can't neutralise an implausibility of that magnitude by incorporating it into the texture of the drama, leaving the suspension of one's disbelief as a challenge posed to each audience member during the last quarter of the film.

That it works so well in spite of that is testament to the skill with which writer-director Paul Haggis lays false leads and winds up the pace, especially in the concluding act. The cleverest of the false leads is the movie's central premise - that someone who as his principal daytime occupation elucidates Don Quixote to teenagers must be totally unsuitable for the job of penetrating a federal penitentiary and freeing a prisoner believed to be a psychopath. Indeed, the case against his doing it becomes at times so overwhelming that it's impossible to resist the impulse of shouting at the screen, "Go home! Let the madwoman stay in the attic where she belongs!"

But that's not very romantic, and the ultimate ratification of Brennan's task must be that it's born of love, something the film argues to be absolute and non-negotiable: "Amor vincit omnia." This film isn't going to change your life; indeed, it may not even change your opinion of Crowe. But it is a well-acted, well-conceived suspense story that manages, along the way, to provide what I suspect is a fairly accurate account of how authoritarian the US penal system can be. It will also embroil you in a tale of obsession that, if you can swallow it whole, yields a handsome pay-off in its closing minutes.

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