Saturday, November 20, 2010

In the right place at the right time - The Next Three Days

The most satisfying thing about The Next Three Days, Paul Haggis’s modest gem of a suspense film, is that it delivers the action and escapism of a thriller, but it also orchestrates a contemplative, indie-toned first half that is a compelling examination of a complex hero. John Brennan (Russell Crowe) is a college professor and an ordinary family man who, after pursuing every legal means to exonerate his wife for a murder he knows she did not commit, is pushed to the edge and decides to spring his wife from prison.

The Next Three Days plays thoughtfully through a first act in which John Brennan, the soft-spoken literature professor, transforms gradually into a not-so-mild-mannered, hard-bitten guy driven by a determination to free his wife. The film quietly traces his ups and downs as he interviews Damon Pennington (Liam Neeson in a stagey cameo appearance), an ex-con Internet celebrity famous for his many escapes from prison, buys a gun he doesn’t know how to load, risks shopping around for fake passports in the mean streets of Pittsburgh, braces himself for a bank robbery in order to finance the escape, and goes up against drug dealers to get ready cash.

Crowe does a masterful job of portraying John’s burgeoning determination. He uses his played-out glare to show this determination turn into monomania. His face goes unshaven, the scars from a beating linger long on his face (not vanishing after a few days as in some movies) as symbols of his descent into wrongdoing, and he shuffles along with a lack of agility that he might wish he had in order to carry out his plan.

Elizabeth Banks as Lara Brennan is equally effective as she portrays a woman for whom the deepest horror of incarceration is being separated from her young son. Banks gradually replaces her bright optimism in her early scenes with a harsh gloom compellingly shown in her unwashed hair and wan face, and when she shocks John with an admission of guilt, her eyes are coldly convincing. Meanwhile, John wants his wife back, but the motivation for his ruthless transformation is more about reuniting mother with son than with reuniting himself with his wife, and that’s what ensures that we’re on John’s side once the escape begins.

Along with Neeson’s melodramatic performance (the scarred face; the cap), there are other moments that distract from the more serious tone of John Brennan’s transformation. The circumstances of the murder are too neatly incriminating from the police detective’s initial point of view, as they are too neatly pat in a later point of view that reveals an alternate version – though that revelation comes in an enjoyable albeit cheesy scene.

Throughout, the film is nicely seeded with touching as well as gripping moments that are shown with little or no dialogue. John’s reinstated emotional connection with his estranged father, a nice bit role played by Brian Dennehy, is simply a handshake, one of the most touching handshakes portrayed in a film. In addition, there is a visceral dying scene that we only hear, and see in John’s remorseful eyes.

Ultimately, the film’s compelling strengths overshadow formulaic elements such as the research and planning sequences in which John tapes maps and photos on a wall and uses an unnecessarily fat-tipped Sharpie to draw arrows to needless notes such as “Destination?” “Finances?” and “Key?” Although the film involves a niftily taut scene involving an actual key, “Key?” here alludes to the security loopholes that, according to Pennington, all prisons suffer. That all the loopholes John Brennan exploits are held back to the end adds to the suspense in the film’s final act, the promised escape, whose layered complexity compensates for moments when the story pushes the limit of believability. Talented editing builds tension as shots of the fleeing fugitives are deftly choreographed with shots of the dogged and wonderfully frustrated pursuers. Direction and editing play nicely with the simple device of being or not being in the right place at the right time.

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