Once you realize, once you get how "The Next Three Days" will unfold, the movie becomes more an exercise than anything else. As a result, it becomes a little boring.
John and Lara Brennan (Russell Crowe and Elizabeth Banks) are very happily married and have a three year old son, Luke. One morning, the police storm into their home and arrest Lara for the murder of her boss. Three years later, all of the appeals and most of the money are gone and this means Lara will soon be moved from her temporary home in a large jail to a penitentiary further away, making the frequent family visits difficult. John has to act fast, for the sake of his family, because Lara will not be able to survive the harder life of the maximum security facility. Out of desperation, he contacts Damon Pennington (Liam Neeson), a former convict who wrote a book about his own prison break. He tells John that if he goes through with this plan, he will have a very limited time frame to complete the plan and to do things he might not be prepared to do. John spends a lot of time sitting, watching, planning and then he notices something providing the beginning of the escape plan. He begins to plot everything, and I mean everything, out to the smallest detail on his bedroom wall.
Written and directed by Paul Haggis ("Crash", "In the Valley of Elah"), "The Next Three Days" moves at a fast pace, yet still seems to be an overly long film. It is a misstep for the filmmaker who usually creates far superior films.
The story opens with Crowe and Banks out at dinner with his brother and sister-in-law. The two women get into a fight and the dinner breaks up early. But John and Lara can barely get back to their car before they start ripping their clothes off. The next morning, mom takes a picture of the family, her daily ritual which John deems corny. Then the police burst in and arrest Lara. I'm all for keeping things moving, but this pacing means we have just witnessed all of the scenes Haggis will allow us to get to know about the Brennan's family life. This is an important thing for us to have a good feel for because John will risk everything in his attempt to break his wife out of jail. We have to believe they are madly, passionately in love, so in love that every day of her incarceration seems an eternity. It is a very short period of screen time, of narrative, to build such emotions. We also have to believe every day of Lara's separation from her family is slowly killing her because she misses her husband and son. Both have to be established for us to care, to give a flying fig about whether John is successful or not. It has to be enough to hook us. These brief moments aren't enough to make this work. But Haggis makes an agreement with us. He almost verbally asks us to go along with him for the ride, he'll spend some more time exploring the family dynamic throughout the film.
Haggis does deliver on this promise and we get a more complete picture of this small family's dynamic. John's willingness to go to such great lengths seems perfectly normal to us.
Haggis is a respected screenwriter and has contributed to many memorable films in addition to the films he writes and directs. You don't get to this point if you can't write a good story or craft memorable, believable dialogue. In "Three Days", Haggis seems to concentrate on the plot. Everything is centered around Crowe's attempts to break Banks out of prison. He sits, watches and comes up with a plan. But Haggis is smart enough to throw in some monkey wrenches, the plan can't be too pat or it will become boring. To make things interesting, Crowe will have to change his mind a few times, usually at the last minute.
Haggis also introduces elements giving a richer subtext to the story. Many of these same moments will also pay off later, making the story more emotionally satisfying. For instance, when John and Lara are having breakfast, she reminds her husband to call his father (Brian Dennehy) and wish him a "Happy Birthday". This allows Haggis to give us a little background about John's relationship with his dad. It isn't a good relationship. Later, as John begins to put his plan together, he leaves his son with his dad and mom. Later, an emotional moment, true to our knowledge of the nature of these characters proves satisfying.
As John moves through his plan, putting together all of the pieces, we witness the different emotions playing on his face and in his body language. At one point, John is about to make a bad decision, desperate to close one part of the overall plan. We know it will end badly if he goes through with it. We want to shout at him, tell him to stop. And he seems to hear us. He changes his mind and chooses an equally dangerous, but with slightly better odds.
As he goes though these moments, he caresses his son's head, or looks at him with a faraway look. These moments are effective but seem too brief. They get the right feeling across but because we don't live with them, we don't feel them through these characters as we need to. Because John is putting together something so dangerous, we have to believe everything is at stake. If we don't connect with any member of the family, we can't completely invest in the story.
When the plan kicks into gear, John moves methodically through the motions. But Haggis throws in some of those monkey wrenches and forces John to make some decisions on the fly.
Throughout the film, the two cops (Jason Beghe, lots of TV appearances, and Aisha Hinds, TV's "Detroit 187" and "Hawthorne") who arrest Lara, are in the background, working to make sure Lara is sent away, to pay for her crime. They pop up occasionally, to remind us of their presence. Then, as John puts his plan in motion, two more detectives (Lennie James and Allan Steele) enter the picture and start to realize what John might be attempting. As all four start to work to find John, the first two detectives begin to think maybe Lara is innocent. Honestly, this is a weak and unbelievable part of the movie. So much so it brings the entire film down a few notches. There is also a coda featuring the first two detectives which is almost maddening, and not for the right reasons.
John's plan is an elaborate Rube Goldberg contraption. Everything hinges on a number of things happening at precisely the right moment. And everything hinges on one thing happening over and over again. Once you realize what this is, the movie loses momentum because it no longer has any suspense.
Crowe has had a difficult few years. His last few films have been commercial and, in many case, critical flops. In "Three Days", his portrayal of John Brennan is not perhaps the most emotional he has ever done. In fact, it feels a little flat because he spends a lot of time sitting and watching. When he does have an emotional moment, they almost seem more perceived than something actually witnessed.
Banks, more commonly known for her roles in extremely popular comedies, shows she can handle more dramatic roles. She quickly establishes her role in the family (she has to) and when she is incarcerated, we see the pain and uncertainty in her face.
"The Next Three Days" holds your attention, but still manages to seem over long and even a little boring.