Some thrillers give us pure action, where the audience is offered the adrenalized pleasure of watching professional cops, soldiers and spies at work as people who are trained to handle trouble tackle it, and we can enjoy the unfolding of the story line as these characters, so unlike us, make sure that good triumphs. Other thrillers offer us a different kind of suspense, where we are offered the nervier prospect of normal people plunged into the thick of circumstance, and we are caught up in the question of if these characters, not unlike us, will not only triumph but, more pressingly, even survive.
Taken from the French film “Pour Elle,” “The Next Three Days” is an example — and a strong example — of the latter, and while it may make the occasional misstep, it represents a steady-handed and modest effort from writer-director Paul Haggis. Haggis’ previous best-known films and scripts have all aspired to varying degrees of nobility and purpose, with varying degrees of success. “Crash,” “In the Valley of Elah,” and even the script for “Million Dollar Baby” are all somewhat failed, in lesser or greater degrees, and watching Haggis simply work the pulses, guts and adrenal glands of the audience is decidedly more pleasant than having him clamber into our laps to appeal to our hearts, minds and souls.
The plot is simple: The loving Brennan family — dad John (Russell Crowe), mom Lara (Elizabeth Banks) and son Luke (Ty Simpkins) — is torn asunder when Lara is arrested and jailed for a murder she claims she didn’t commit. Years pass in the wake of the arrest, the appeals have been exhausted, and John simply cannot face the prospect of his life, and his son’s life, without her presence. And since the law will not put things right, the law must be broken.
Haggis does several things with this plot that work remarkably well. The opening scene, like that of “Let Me In,” represents a flash-forward — not to the end, but, rather, to a point about two-thirds of the way through the plot, so we can enjoy the dread building through the desperate times that lead to the desperate measures. Haggis also creates not one but two ticking-clock deadlines that must be met, juicing the timeline of the final act. And Haggis’ proclivity for revealing information late in the game for maximum dramatic impact — as in “The Valley of Elah,” where cell-phone videos are unscrambled and repaired in the precise order of optimum service to the narrative — is, in this case, a feature and not a bug.
Crowe and Banks are fine. She has everywoman grit under her suburban sheen; he has a beefy bulk that reveals strength in crisis. Brian Dennehy, as Crowe’s father, has, perhaps, 50 words to speak on-screen … and makes a banquet of them. Lennie James, as Pittsburgh’s answer to Inspector Javert, growls doggedly to move things forward. And Liam Neeson, with just one scene as an expert ex-jailbreaker, gets out emotion and exposition with real economy.
“The Next Three Days” is far from perfect. There’s a climactic action scene that strains both narrative and visual belief, where we not only doubt that the character would do what they did, but also where the pixilated, computer-generated clunkiness of it is so distracting in the moment that I had to look down to make sure that I wasn’t holding an Xbox 360 controller. And yet that can’t entirely undermine the simple pleasures of the film: Crowe’s sincere determination as he makes jailbreak into the ultimate Do-It-Yourself project, the creation of the plan, the sudden last-minute alterations as things go awry.
Stéphane Fontaine’s cinematography has the raw, righteous funk of ’70s ordinary-guy thrillers like “Three Days of the Condor” and “The Parallax View,” and Haggis (with one or two exceptions) keeps the film’s modest ambitions within that narrow groove. “The Next Three Days” is a nice change-up from the director — it’s made to inspire edge-of-seat enjoyment in the theater, not standing-ovation adulation at awards shows — and while it’s not exactly a nail-biter for the ages, it’s exactly the kind of meat-and-potatoes thriller designed for you and your dad to enjoy in the stuffing-swollen post-dinner hours of Thanksgiving weekend.