Reviewed by Marc Glassman
Paul Haggis, director and script
Based on Pour Elle, directed and co-scripted by Fred Cavayé
Starring: Russell Crowe (John Brennan), Elizabeth Banks (Lara Brennan), Ty Simpkins (Luke Brennan), Jason Beghe (Detective Quinn), Aisha Hinds (Detective Collero), Olivia Wilde (Nicole), Brian Dennehy (George Brennan), Helen Carey (Grace Brennan)
Lovers of American genre movies aren’t likely to have heard of Robert Bresson but watching Paul Haggis’ latest film The Next Three Days reminds one of the old French master of Catholic restraint. In Un condamné à mort s’est échappé or A Man Escaped, Bresson showed in faux-documentary style how a prisoner named Fontaine labouriously figured out how to get away from a Nazi run camp during World War Two. Haggis gives us a man with a similar dilemma: he must get his wife out of jail for a crime she did not commit. Not a light-hearted caper film, The Next Three Days dramatizes the methodology used by a man obsessed with getting his family back, at whatever cost it takes.
Russell Crowe plays John Brennan, a community college English literature professor whose life revolves around his beautiful, neurotic wife Lara and their young son Luke. Haggis shows the pain and confusion when the Brennan’s home in Pittsburgh is suddenly invaded by a shock troop of police, who arrest Lara on the spot in front of her crying son and confused husband. Three years later, the Brennans are running out of appeals and it’s becoming obvious that she’ll spend the rest of her days behind bars.
Haggis concentrates on Crowe’s Brennan, a decent man pushed to the end of his tether. Determined to get Lara out of prison, he takes a crazy risk to obtain fake passports for his family, getting beaten up badly in the process. Crowe/Brennan puts up a huge map on his bedroom wall and fills it with photos of places they can escape to–and injunctions on how to get the proper escape route.
The casting of Crowe is a brilliant move on Haggis’ part. The Oscar winning actor is at a crossroads in his career. One never knows whether he’s playing the action hero renowned for Gladiator and more recently Robin Hood or the more restrained character actor from The Insider and State of Play. In fact, Haggis has it both ways, building sympathy for Brennan as a normal man trapped in a system that has condemned his wife unfairly–and then unleashing the action figure, when the plot deems it necessary.
Fascinating, too, is the relationship between Lara and John Brennan. Elizabeth Banks, an excellent actor, makes the most of her character, conveying the spontaneous nature of Lara, who is capable of making love in a car when the mood strikes her—and attempt suicide when things look to be impossibly bleak. Crowe’s John is Lara’s opposite: a constrained figure, who needs his wife and child to make his life worthwhile. The two fight with each other even while they’re making their escape.
The Next Three Days isn’t a Bressonian masterpiece. But it is a fine addition to Haggis’ growing body of work. This is the kind of film that people will enjoy on a Saturday night: emotional, occasionally thrilling and tightly plotted. After the immense success of Crash and the unfortunate box-office failure of Into the Valley of Elah, this should be a comeback film for one of Toronto’s finest exports to Hollywood.