Paul Haggis is kind of fucked as a director. It’s hard not to feel like, after this best picture win for Crash, that critics and the like will spend the next decade trying to correct a mistake, like a ref throwing half a dozen unnecessary flags after he blew a huge call that allowed a hack who used ineffectual narrative devices to defeat overblown stereotypes score a touchdown. At least The Next Three Days is smart not to feature opening credits so the refs don’t put their hand on the flag before the movie even gets started. But critics know, and everything with Haggis’ name attached is going to be held against him, reviewed with more scrutiny, and picked apart like Jack Donaghy ripping open a microwave oven.
It’s too bad. Haggis managed to redeem himself to an extent with In the Valley of Elah, but since no one saw it, no one will hold it up in his favor. The Next Three Days makes another very small step toward redemption, but it won’t matter. It’s opening against the biggest movie of the year and probably won’t remain in theaters much longer than its title suggest.
The Next Three Days is not exactly what the adverts portend, either. It’s a prison break movie, but not of the fast-paced Bourne variety. The actual prison break doesn’t come until near the end of the film — like a heist flick, in the first hour and a half Haggis slowly and methodically builds toward the last half hour, and whatever you want to say about the first three quarters of the movie, it’s hard to deny that the suspense of the last act is effective. He winds it up so tightly that for a few moments, you might find yourself crossing your fingers and clutching your chest wondering if the characters will pull off the escape.
Too bad the first three-quarters are something of a drag. Russell Crowe stars as John Brennan, a community college professor whose wife, Lara (Elizabeth Banks) is convicted of a murder we’re not entirely sure she committed. No matter: John is convinced of her innocence, and after they exhaust the appeals process, he’s not willing to let his wife rot in prison for the rest of her life, not when they have a cute kid with a rag-mop haircut to raise together. So John hatches a plan, and after talking to a man (Liam Neeson, in a single but pivotal scene) who has broken out of prison seven times, John begins to piece together an escape strategy. The difficult part is not in getting Lara out of prison; it’s in escaping the subsequent chase.
Unfortunately, for all the time that Haggis spends in meticulously building up the escape plan, belaboring over the details and taking an awkward left turn into criminal thuggery, he ends up taking something of an implausible (almost laughable) shortcut when it comes time to get Lara out. That shortcut, however, doesn’t detract from the overall suspense, in part because you honestly still don’t know if they’ll pull off the escape. It’s a quiet, methodical, almost bleak film; Crowe is brooding, and Banks is so … brunette that you’re never quite certain if it’s the sort of film that ends in gut-wrenching death or a rousing escape. Credit to Banks, too, for doing so much with what little screen time she has. You never get bogged down in wondering whether she committed the crime because you don’t really care; in either respect, you want her to get away. She is something of a bitch in The Next Three Days, but it only makes her more human, someone for whom you want to root, guilty or not.
Granted, what success that Haggis has with The Next Three Days can probably be attributed in part to the blue plans devised in the original French thriller, Pour Elle. In the end, however, it’s too long, too slow, decidedly downbeat, and not very entertaining. But as an unpredictable suspense film, it works. It will kick your adrenaline into gear and trigger your sweat glands, but like we’ve come to expect from Haggis, The Next Three Days never explores the ambiguities. But at least instead of racial stereotypes, this time he beats us over the head with tension and anxiety. It’s a great film, if you like alternating boredom with the jitters.