I have within me a tremendous drive to preserve my family, to make things safe and secure for my wife and my sons. There is nothing I wouldn’t do for my family, and one of the things that I’ve been surprised by is the intensity of my paternal drive. It’s something you can’t predict about yourself. You can’t imagine it until you’ve actually held one of your kids for the first time. I had a moment of total lightning-bolt transformation, an internal thing that I find hard to even quantify. There have been several moments in the five years since my first son was born where I have felt powerful reminders of just how far I’d go for my children, for the family I’ve built.
I like stories in which a genuinely common person is tested by extraordinary circumstances. I think we’ve gotten to an age in film where everyone’s basically a superhero when you’re watching a thriller. There are no “common people” in films anymore, it seems. What I like most about the new Paul Haggis film “The Next Three Days” is the way Russell Crowe plays John Brennan as a completely average guy. He’s a little fat, he’s not particularly powerful or brilliant, and he doesn’t really have any special resources to draw on. So when he is forced to find a way to save his family, rallying what little strength he has, it is a genuine test. And when he faces certain moral choices, he fails. That seems compelling to me, precisely because of what I explained, that drive that kicks in to protect your family at all costs. This movie asks exactly how far it is that John is willing to go, and then tries to push him just that little bit further, taking him to some harrowing places even before the film works its way around to the escape that is its whole purpose.
I’ve taken a lot of heat for not liking the work of Paul Haggis over the past few years, and in particular, I’ve had some heated exchanges with people over both “Crash” and “Million Dollar Baby.” My biggest complaint with those films is that I think he’s a man of scenes. He’s capable of creating these moments that feel like they’re important and they work as individual scenes, but those films, taken as a whole, feel shameless in the way they roughly manipulate the viewer. All drama is manipulation to some extent. I get that. But when I feel the hand of the filmmaker steering me too hard, I resist. I resent it. And that’s what Haggis does to me for the most part. I chafe at the way he tells his stories, more than the stories he tells. I think it’s the addition of the “important” themes that also bothers me. Haggis has a real taste for pulp in his storytelling, but self-important pulp is almost intolerable.
Maybe it is my low expectations that enabled me to enjoy “The Next Three Days” more than almost anything else he’s done. I still think he’s got a fondness for improbable coincidence, and there is one beat near the end of the film so monumentally miscalculated that I’m not sure how it made it all the way through the process and into the final cut of the movie. But all things considered, the film works as a yarn about a guy who gets pushed into a corner and has to figure some way out. He’s just a schoolteacher, happy to live his boring life, and he’s unprepared for the way his world is turned upside down when his wife Laura (Elizabeth Banks) is arrested for murder. The first section of the film deals with his attempts to simply build a life in the aftermath of that arrest, raising their son Luke (Ty Simpkins), who can’t handle the way people treat him, the way they look at him. Finally, after years of appeals, it’s too much for John anymore. He can’t watch his wife, who he believes to be innocent, waste away and watch his son suffer. He decides he has to get her out of prison somehow. Whatever it takes.
The original French version, which translated as “Anything For Her,” only came out a few years ago, and I’m curious to see how they told the story. Haggis turns his into a sort of mundane thriller, a how-to movie that could be subtitled “YouTube Will Teach You To Break The Law.” Liam Neeson shows up for a few minutes as a guy famous for prison escapes who sets John on the right path to break Laura out. The rest of the movie is pretty much all method, and the fact that John’s not very good at what he’s doing is part of the suspense. He screws up a few key steps along the way, and he’s so angry, so volcanic, that he seems permanently on the verge of derailing his own efforts.
There are some lovely performances in the film. Brian Dennehy shows up for just a few scenes, but he’s very effective, and Olivia Wilde is a lovely temptation for John late in the game, a look at the life he mint have if he’d just give up on his wife. The question of whether or not she actually committed the crime is left until late in the game, and I’m not sure I care what the answer is. Because there’s no way for John to know for sure if she did or didn’t murder her boss, I’m not sure we the audience should ever learn the truth. It’s one of those oh-so-clever buttons on a film that seems like it’s there to show off the narrative gymnastics Haggis is capable of instead of serving some real purpose.
If I actually gave out star ratings or numerical scores, this one would be right on the fine line between pass and fail. The film builds to a superheroic ending that betrays a lot of what comes before it, and contains that one bizarre moment involving Banks that just doesn’t work, and if you can’t nail the ending on a film like this, it’s almost not worth doing. But there is work in the movie I liked, and I hope Haggis decides to tell more stories that don’t reach for some greater significance and that are simply stories. “The Next Three Days” isn’t a bad way to spend two hours, and for me to say that about a Paul Haggis film feels like a major step forward.
“The Next Three Days” opens everywhere today.