Paul Haggis | 133 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA & France / English | 12 / PG-13
If someone you loved was locked up for decades for a crime you were sure they didn’t commit, how far would you go to get them out? That’s the premise of this methodical thriller from writer-director Paul Haggis (of Crash, of course), based on the French film Pour Elle.
Those with even a very basic grasp of French (like me) may spot that translates literally as “For Her” (though the English releases call it Anything for Her), which is why Russell Crowe does what he does: his middle-class idyll is shattered one day when police storm into his house and violently arrest his wife (Elizabeth Banks), in front of their small child, for the murder of the boss she argued with the night before. (This, incidentally, is the least plausible part of the entire movie — there’s no need for the police to storm the house like that, and in real life they wouldn’t. Well, American police might, I suppose. But I still don’t believe it.) The evidence is stacked against her, and her explanations for it sound a little far-fetched. She’s convicted, sent down… and when all legal means of appeal are exhausted, Crowe sets about planning a prison break.
This setup is, in my opinion, a really good one — though I feel kind of biased as the basics have crossed my mind as a good basis for a plot long before this or Pour Elle existed. Thing is, it’s inherently quite a daft concept: prisons are (rightfully) incredibly secure places — no ordinary Joe is breaking anyone out of there in a couple of weeks. By rights, a film of this ilk should probably be a Taken-esque slightly-OTT action-thriller, with a protagonist who either already has a “particular set of skills” or implausibly learns them (maybe over a longer period of time) before putting in motion their crazy scheme.
Haggis’ film is a mix of that, in its final act, and an attempt at depicting a serious, plausible, realistic version of what might happen if a regular, intelligent guy set his mind to such a task. Except it’s not really plausible that he’d get very far. Nonetheless, the film takes its time going through the motions of how Crowe might learn and practice the skills required, fund the enterprise, formulate his plan… Some have described this as dull, but I think it actually works. It’s a different kind of film to a pacey prison-break actioner, but if you were crazy enough to try this in the real world, of course you’d start by looking up “how to” articles online, by finding the authors of “how I escaped” books, by trying to buy a gun on the black market and messing it up, and so on.
According to Haggis, the French film is actually quite American-styled, a fast-paced thriller, which he chose to expand out. I’ve not seen the original so can’t say how he’s done that, but the implication is that the detail of the planning, and of the characters’ regular lives, has received more attention. A subplot with Olivia Wilde is a pointless aside that only explains itself once it throws a spanner in the works during the climax, but the scenes with Crowe’s parents pay off thanks to an excellent near-wordless supporting turn from Brian Dennehy. Best thing in the film, easily.
Running him a close second is the all-action final half hour or so, when Crowe (spoilers! but not really!) finally stages the actual escape. It’s a long time coming, but we’re paid off with a pretty fantastic long-form action sequence. There’s genuine tension about whether they’ll pull it off or not, and along the way we’re treated to a few nice flourishes in his plan. There’s a fair degree of silliness still, though, so at least that’s in-keeping with the rest of the movie.
Thing is, for all my love for the idea, it’s ultimately quite a silly concept. As much as we might dream of rescuing our innocent loved one from a life of torment behind bars, if it came to pass in reality, the vast majority of people would immediately realise it was an impossible dream. By trying to treat it plausibly, The Next Three Days is on a hiding to nothing — for all the realism of how Crowe begins his research and planning, there’s the downside that this slow-paced plausibility turns some viewers off; and when we do get the eventual escape, it’s an “in movie’s only” adrenaline-provoker that said viewers wanted all along. The film pretty much can’t win.
Finally, there’s an attempt to keep uncertain the truth about Banks’ culpability. Haggis never wanted that question to be answered — Crowe believes she’s innocent, even when she confesses to his face, and that’s what matters. I don’t think Haggis is a filmmaker who can resist answers, however, and for all his assertions that her innocence/guilt is left ambiguous, by the end I think you can be pretty darned certain which it is… which kinda makes all the previous attempts to leave it open feel hollow, especially the ones that side with the untrue.
The Next Three Days ends up as a solid thriller, with a methodical pace that will kill some viewers’ interest, but which conversely provides a depiction of detail that will hold the attention of anyone who’s ever pondered what they’d do in such a situation. The finale is largely worth the wait, at least, even if everyone will wish Haggis had skipped over a few longueurs while getting there.
The Next Three Days is on Channel 5 tonight at 10pm.