Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Next Three Days (dir. Paul Haggis)

It would seem movie fans in the house are so terrified of being fooled twice that they remain unwilling to give Paul Haggis another chance. Crash was one of those movies that we've tried to wipe from our memories, for any number of reasons (not the least of which is that it is the blackest spot on the Academy's record in a decade in which they also awarded Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind the title of Best Picture of the Year), that we've completely buried our own feelings towards the film itself. It's become a thing beyond itself, which is not uncommon when a film is discussed far beyond the proportion of what it brings to the table. But there are some things Haggis does right with Crash, most notably in his use of tension. Now, sometimes it would be thoughtless misdirection, as in his introduction of blank rounds in a gun, but there's that scene in which Matt Dillon has to rescue Thandie Newton from a burning car that is really, truly gripping.

The Next Three Days is that sequence over the course of a motion picture, and it would seem that when Haggis needs to just buckle down a tell a damn story, he's more than capable of doing so. He just doesn't trust himself all the way (but we'll get to that later). Russell Crowe plays John Brennan, a literature professor whose wife, Lara (Elizabeth Banks), is sent to jail, convicted of murder. Having exhausted all legal channels of getting her free, he decides to break her out. The problem is, he's not a criminal. Doesn't know how to be a criminal. The best sequences of the early part of this film show just how unfit he is to be a criminal. After narrowly avoiding the consequences of a relatively smaller crime, he immediately vomits. Early on, he seeks the help of an escape expert (Liam Neeson), who outlines the kind of man he'll have to become and the stakes he'll be up against, and we can tell already that John is most certainly not that man. The film's great weakness is not holding him to the standard Neeson's character sets, but it manages to have enough fun on the way that it's not totally damaging.

Most of the film follows John making his way through the criminal underworld to acquire the skills and resources he'll need as the big day rapidly approaches, and Haggis pulls some moves here that puts this square in the classic no-holds-barred, one man against the world kind of film. But the real show-stopper is the actual escape, where Haggis pulls out all the stops. With one line - "Do I look like I'm going home?" - Haggis and Crowe perfectly establish the real stakes of this mission and John's determination to see it through. A series of near-misses, to-the-second timing, and lucky breaks are what the man-on-the-run movie is all about, and while Haggis is no Phillip Noyce in this regard (action nerds should've paid more mind to Salt earlier this year), he's also set up more sympathetic characters, which goes a long way when that damn elevator just won't close.

And then as quickly as he's gained our support, Haggis is just as capable of throwing it away. If you don't want to know where it all ends up, just know that, much like in Crash, though Haggis introduces the idea of a complex morality, he'll let you rest easy by the end. Consider this the ever-popular spoiler warning for the rest of the post. Up until the last five or ten minutes, we've had little reason to believe that John's doing the right thing. He is literally the only person, including his attorney, who believes with any certainty that Lara is innocent. The evidence, indeed, is quite stunning. Lara herself even says outright that John is wrong to assume her innocence, though the conversation is heated enough that there's just the right level of doubt. So for the most part, we're watching John break the law setting a murderer free, and honestly, this is the level on which the film is the most compelling - either John is in complete denial of the evidence at hand, or he just doesn't care and wants to be with his wife at whatever the cost. And this, alone, is interesting stuff.

But then this damn scene comes up that completely proves to us, the audience, that Lara is innocent. None of the other characters ever find out - it just comes down to a shot that tells us, the coddled audience, "Don't worry, nobody is doing anything morally wrong. Everything John does is, in the end, righteous!" While I'm not categorically against this kind of simple morality (I'm a big fan of Superman, for crying out loud), that isn't this movie. This is a movie in which everything should be called into question, every step of the way. We have to be allowed to process these sorts of situations ourselves, not told there's an out. If Lara's innocence is important to the film, then it should be established immediately instead of given the twist-ending treatment. Otherwise, it's something only being used as a gimmick, and bears no thematic resonance. It's a dispiriting end to an otherwise very engaging thriller.

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