(The Next Three Days, Paul Haggis, US, 2010, 122mins)
[Warning: This review discusses some aspects of the plot]
Paul Haggis’ remake of Fred Cavayé’s Pour Elle is written with a forensic eye for detail, mining plot twists and tension from the most unlikely of objects – broken keys, a jar of Canadian quarters, a torn off button and a pun on a child’s birthday party invitation. Haggis has written a thriller that’s both straight laced, befitting his screenwriting style, yet bolted together with enough rug pulling moments to ensure that the incident heavy narrative, though long, never lags; many of the most effective scenes employing the Hitchcockian maxim that you can show a couple kissing for as long as you like provided there’s a bomb under the bed. Haggis has plenty of bombs and plenty of beds to put them under.
Crowe plays a schoolteacher with a genetically gifted wife and subdued three year old son, whose domestic bliss is destroyed when his spouse is suddenly arrested for the murder of her boss. That’s right, even if she’s guilty she’s morally sound. Despite her protestations of innocence, the case against her seems watertight and she’s promptly convicted for the duration of her son’s childhood. With her mental health deteriorating and all legal solutions spent, Crowe gets busy and hatches a plan to bust her out, while the officers investigating the original murder keep a beady eye on him.
Crowe’s lone man against the system can hardly be blamed for wanting to restore his family to its former glory. Haggis establishes with great economy, in just a couple of scenes, that she’s not only happy to make reassuring noises about his masculinity with just the right amount of jealously, but she’s highly libidinous, good humoured and an equal partner in a sickeningly fine relationship.
There’s no greater commodity in American movies than family, it’s a universal currency in which all patrons are thought to trade and here, as in just about every American picture of the last million years, it’s used, without apology, to fast track audience identification with Crowe and manipulate their sympathies. Having received a master class in beating law enforcement protocols from former escapee Liam Neeson, Crowe hits the streets to procure false documents and ends up murdering a Crystal Meth supplier for cash. No matter though, the dead man is a drug dealer and crucially, we learn, he’d alienated his wife and child. Crowe also kills a second man, who we infer has no family. The ends justify the means you see, but in such movies bad parents and bachelors are second-class citizens and ultimately nothing matters more than the familial restoration. It could be otherwise but why risk it, when the universe may implode if such radical notions ever made it to a cinema screen?
Domesticity in crisis aside, the film’s main preoccupation is time, namely the manner in which its imposition makes it an illiberal force. Crowe’s raison d’être becomes hanging on the big hand, Harold Lloyd style, in a bid to halt its relentless spin around the clock-face. Whether it’s Crowe liberating his wife from her 20 year jail term, expediting his plans to get her out in the three days before she’s moved to a new prison, or racing to get out of the city in the 35 minutes before escape becomes impossible, Haggis reinvents tick-tocking as the sound of a death knell, imbuing his screenplay with plenty of urgency. This is a thriller for lovers of thrillers in which each act is consciously realised as units of time that become more compressed as the story moves forward – three years, three months, three days and so on. Haggis employs the technique to give his screenplay an ever quickening rhythm; a movie that changes gear at the moments where less engaging scripts might have run out of steam and consequently he maintains a strangler’s grip on his audience.
Haggis’ film has a neat line in subverting expectation, though not always to positive effect. Commendations all round for the filmmakers choosing not to do the bleedin’ obvious and allow single Mother Olivia Wilde to become an alternative love interest, though the threat of the same is one method employed by Haggis to punctuate the story with complications in what might have been an otherwise saggy mid-section. Nevertheless, it surely was a reasonable expectation that she might have had more to do than look longingly at Crowe and take his kid to the zoo? Likewise, fans of Brian Dennehy may also feel an unwanted tension, wondering if the veteran supporting actor is ever going to get a line. He does but it’s a long time coming. In fact there’s very little room in Haggis’ film for anyone except its leading man. Elizabeth Banks, who plays the progressively non-communicative Lara, does heart broken and stoic very well but has little choice given the threadbare nature of her role. In fact when featured brands, with the lion’s share of the action belonging to Google, YouTube and Toyota, have a greater presence in the story than some of the principle actors, it’s fair to say that characterisation is somewhat unbalanced.
The ubiquity of Crowe aside, The Next Three Days is a tense and meticulously plotted thriller that’s highly successful in posting an unfamiliar and at times, uncertain route to its inevitable destination, forcing its audience to question whether they’ll ever arrive. Haggis is always on top of the material, introducing a parallel investigation into Crowe’s drug dealer homicide to add jeopardy and suspense to a long third act and keeping Lara’s guilt or innocence as an open question until the eleventh hour. Danny Elfman’s anonymous contribution does nothing to add to the suspense but fortunately Haggis has done enough without him; still I might commit murder myself for the return of both him and the composing colossi of old. What hope?