Playing a community-college literature teacher, Russell Crowe explains to his class the pith of Don Quixote: "Rational thought destroys the soul." Has there ever been a better self-defense for a movie thriller? Okay, so The Next Three Days is entirely preposterous, but Oscar-winning writer-director Paul Haggis (Crash) creates a temporary illusion of credibility and, with it, enough suspense to pull an audience through a two-hour-plus run time. It's a skill on which Hitchcock once prided himself, though Haggis' film skews tonally away from escapism and toward neo-noir.
A remake of Fred Cavayé's French thriller Pour Elle, The Next Three Days deals with a literal escape, as Crowe's John Brennan plots to spring his suicidal wife Lara (Elizabeth Banks) from a Pittsburgh lockup. Early scenes establish how this middle-class woman finds herself sent up the river on what may or may not be a trumped-up murder charge. The audience has doubts, but John wills himself past those doubts. As he says of Don Quixote, "What if we choose to exist solely in a reality of our own making?"
So John parks his young son with the grandparents (Brian Dennehy and Helen Carey, both sharp) and begins in earnest to make his own reality: that he will escape the country with his family intact. John begins the process by plying frequent escapee Damon Pennington (guest star Liam Neeson), who explains that the prison break is the easy part; escaping the post-9/11 rapid-response cordon is hard.
And so begins an odyssey that presses a man to his limits. Brennan may be smarter than the average bear and his motivation is strong, but he's also emotionally unprepared for the realities of committing crimes. Haggis wisely undercuts Brennan's superheroics with some sweaty failures on the way to the climactic effort: a test-run of one aspect of the plan nearly ends it all, and the more desperate John becomes, the more vulnerable to the authorities and the criminal element (on which he relies for fake passports and a quick infusion of cash).
Meanwhile, Lara turns the screws on John with her own journey into extremity: her legal options exhausted and her son turning cold to her, she won't last much longer on the inside. It's do or die for John, but Haggis teases the notion that what he must do for the woman he loves may change him so much that—even should he succeed—she may no longer be able to love him in return.
Banks doesn't get much screen time to establish her character, but she serves the story well, portraying Lara as a loving mother but also impulsive and emotionally raw. Crowe has to tamp down his natural confidence (the extra weight helps a little) and make John nervy in both senses of the word: bold but also jumpy.
As for Haggis, he focuses on holding our interest by yanking our chain, equivocating on the accuracy of Google-accessible criminal advice and the skill or incompetence of law enforcement. It works: audiences may roll an eye here or there, but they're unlikely to lose interest in John's efforts.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]