Today is February 2nd. Today is Groundhog Day. Today I watched Groundhog Day, but since I have already seen it before I can’t write about it for this column. Luckily I have the day off work, so I had time to find another flick to write about. I found this…
The Next Three Days
One bad-ass college professor
Paul Haggis must have got all the whimsy out of his soul with Due South. I can’t be the only one who thinks that’s a shame. I miss that about his work; it had charm, whereas something like Crash was terribly worthy but ultimately soulless. The Next Three Days is somewhere in between. It’s a grown-up drama but with no loftier ambitions than entertainment, and on that front it is a qualified success.
A remake of the French film Pour Elle from 2008, The Next Three Days is all about John Brennan, a college professor happily married to Lara with a cute toddler son and a nice, middle class house outside Pittsburgh. Suddenly, one morning, the fuzz come busting in and arrest Lara for the murder of her boss. She is convicted and sentenced to 20 years. Four years later, the final appeals are exhausted and Lara has no chance of getting out, so John decides to take matters into his own hands. Cue dramatic music.
Earlier when I said the movie was about John, that wasn’t just a turn of phrase. Except for the scenes with the police, the film plays out entirely from John’s point of view. We get no idea of how Lara is getting on in the Big House, or how young Luke is handling things at school, other than from their interactions with him. I can understand the logic of this, insofar as it creates a bit of mystery by omission. Without seeing the crime from Lara’s perspective we can’t be sure if she’s telling the truth when protesting her innocence. But then, since it’s Elizabeth Banks playing Lara, it’s difficult to see her as a murderer. Any ambiguity is completely undone at the end though, when there a nice atmospheric, black-and-white flashback showing the entire thing. I won’t tell you if she did it or not.
With a lesser actor than Russell Crowe as John, this movie would certainly have faltered. He plays John’s increasing desperation with understatement except for a handful of key scenes (one with Daniel Stern as Lara’s lawyer stands out) but I like that. It fits the man’s personality: he’s methodical; he’s been shutting himself off emotionally to protect his son from the grief he has wallowed in since the arrest. Plotting the escape actually brings him back to life in a way. If he wasn’t mostly shitting himself in terror he would probably have a spring in his step. And speaking of plotting an escape from prison, it is amazing what you can learn from YouTube these days. One thing did bother me a bit though, but I’ll come back to that later.
Haggis has done a hell of a job putting the supporting cast together for this movie, chief among them being the legendary Brian Dennehy as John’s pa. The two have a sweet moment together where, unbeknownst to his son, Brennan Senior has figured out what Junior is up to and bids him goodbye, fully aware that they might never see each other again. Also notable is Lennie James as the cop on the trail of whoever killed a meth dealer and stole all his money, and Kevin Corrigan as the aforementioned meth dealer. The trailer set up Liam Neeson as almost a third lead, but he barely qualifies as a cameo as the compulsive escapee who for some unknown reason is living free and provides John with some technical advice on the art of the prison break. Olivia Wilde brings her trademark wide-eyed ingénue act to the single mother of Luke’s playground friend, and a glimpse at one possible alternative future for John.
Danny Elfman’s score is very strong. It is so far removed from his early collaborations with Tim Burton as to be almost unrecognisable as an Elfman score (at least to my less than expert ears), but it serves the film well. My favourite musical moment in the flick isn’t actually part of the score though: there is a sequence after the break-out – and you can’t call the fact that he gets her out a spoiler, since it’s in the fucking poster – where there is a song playing as the couple are driving away from town trying to outrun the impending roadblock, and it builds and builds a bit like Moby’s Extreme Ways in the Bourne flicks, up to the one and only big special effect stunt shot in the film. The editing of the sequence, combined with the soundtrack and the literal “ticking clock” tension device of John’s wristwatch counting down creates a great beat in the movie, which is made even more of a heart-pounder by being the only such moment to be found here. I literally jumped forward in my seat watching it unfold.
Earlier, I called The Next Three Days a qualified success. There are one or two problems here that I would be remiss in not mentioning. The main one is in the character of John himself. Crowe does a bang-up job, but the fact that this mild-mannered teacher becomes (“Yarrgh!!”) a killer (“Avast!”) in order to get his wife out of jail could have been executed better. Neeson does give him the whole “What are you prepared to do” speech in his one scene early on, but I don’t quite buy that these acts would have so little effect on the man. He essentially just shrugs it off. Maybe one more scene would have helped, I don’t know. The other thing probably stems from my ten years of watching CSI, but I could have argued the evidence that convicted Lara to a reasonable doubt. Daniel Stern must have been a pretty shitty defence attorney at trial.
So, should you watch it? Yeah, sure. While not necessarily a great film or a classic of the genre, it is a good thing that this kind of feature is still being made in this age of endless sequels and CGI circle-jerks. It is an intelligent film that shows restraint when it needs to. Be aware though, if you are searching for this and accidentally land on Three Days of the Condor instead, snap that up straight away.