When a couple of Academy Award winners team up to make a film, it’s a fairly safe bet that the result will be a movie well worth the price of admission. That certainly is the case with “The Next Three Days,” a thriller directed by Academy Award winner Paul Haggis (“Crash”) and starring Academy Award winner Russell Crowe (“Gladiator”).

This film is an adaptation of “Pour Elle,” a French picture in the tradition of Alfred Hitchcock. Although the American version has a few glitches, overall it is a superbly acted movie filled with plenty of drama and suspense, and the final 30 minutes are rife with gut-wrenching tension.

John Brennan (Crowe) teaches English at a community college in Pittsburgh (The movie is actually filmed here.), and he and his wife, Lara (Elizabeth Banks), have young son, Luke (Ty Simpkins). As the film begins, John is behind the wheel of his car, and his face is a bloody mess. We have no idea at this point who he is or what has happened to him, and before we find out, the film flashes back three years.

After having a rather unpleasant dinner with John’s brother and his bitchy wife, who baits Lara into a nasty argument, John and Lara head home. The day has not gone well for Lara because she had a serious disagreement with her boss. But it was even a worse day for Lara’s boss, who was murdered in the same parking garage where Lara parked her car. Through a series of circumstances too complicated to delineate here, the victim’s blood ends up on Lara’s coat, and Lara’s fingerprints are on the murder weapon, and the next day the police burst into Brennans’ house and take Lara away.

Now we flash ahead three years to find that Lara already has been tried and convicted, and she is incarcerated in the Allegheny County Jail in downtown Pittsburgh awaiting transfer to the state penitentiary to serve a sentence of 20 years. The appeal process has pretty much run its course, and things are not looking good for her. It is fairly obvious that Lara is innocent, but the evidence against her is overwhelming, and John is pulling out all the stops to try to prove that his wife is not a murderess. Despite the hopelessness of the situation, John pleads with his lawyer (Daniel Stern) to file some new appeals, and this prompts his lawyer to be brutally honest with him by saying, “I need you to look at the evidence. Lara is not getting out.”

At this point, John decides that he has no other choice but to take matters into his own hands, and he begins researching prison breaks on the Internet, and he even interviews a guy (Liam Neeson) who has broken out of prison seven times. Lara has virtually given up all hope, but John emphatically tells her, “This will not be your life.” Soon the walls of John’s house are covered with facts and information, and when he learns that Lara is going to be transferred to a state penitentiary within three days, he finally implements his entire plan. And all hell breaks loose.

A major part of Crowe’s brilliance as an actor is his ability to communicate this thoughts and feelings without speaking, and as we watch John begin his painstaking plan to get his wife out of jail, we know exactly what he is thinking from Crowe’s facial expressions and body language. He is fully aware that he is going to be breaking the law, and yet he is driven to obtain false passports and other identification from some extremely dangerous people.

While John is hatching his plan, we see him going through his daily life of teaching his classes and spending time with his son. We also accompany him on his trips to visit Lara in jail, and these scenes are heart-wrenching because of the emotional toll they take on both John and Lara. When we first meet her in the film, Lara is a knockout, but her time in jail has not been kind to her. The luster is gone from her beautiful hair, and she has become so cynical that she throws John’s optimism back into his face.

The question of Lara’s guilt or innocence looms throughout the film, and Haggis uses snippets of what occurred in the parking garage to let us know the answer. These elements definitely give the film the look and feel of a Hitchcock movie, and in the production notes, Haggis explained this is what he was trying to achieve with John’s character.

“I’ve always wanted to make a thriller, especially one where a love story played such a central role. Here was Hitchcock’s classic scenario, a perfectly ordinary man who, in this case, thrusts himself into extraordinary circumstances. He can’t watch his wife and son suffer so much as they drift apart from each other. But when he finds out what it takes to break her out, he has to ask himself a very difficult question: ‘Would you save the woman you love if you knew that by doing so you would turn into someone that she might no longer be able to love?’ That’s what always draws me to a subject — a question I cannot answer for myself. When I find the question, I know I have a film. But the film is also about the nature and power of trust — what it means when you trust someone no matter what, when no one else does, when all the evidence is against them — when they can no longer even trust themselves.”

Banks’s performance is very bit as effective as Crowe’s in this film. Her transformation from the glamorous, loving wife and mother to the embittered inmate is incredible, and her reaction when John reveals what he is going to do is completely  convincing. She also has a terrific chemistry with Crowe, and this is one of the main reasons that the film works as well as it does.

In the production notes, both Crowe and Banks offered interesting insight into their respective characters.

“I was really struck by the conundrum John Brennan faces. This man has an undying love for his wife and would do anything to save her. Yet to achieve what he has to achieve, he must turn into somebody she may not love. To me, that was an interesting journey to go on.”

And of Lara, Banks said, ““Lara’s ambitious, and she’s balancing work and motherhood and trying to maintain this really great relationship with the love of her life. When she gets torn away from him, they’re both devastated, but they deal with it in two totally different ways. This movie isn’t really about whether she’s guilty or innocent; it’s about what can be proven in a court of law and whether that matters to somebody who loves you and believes in you no matter what.”

“The Next Three Days” (Let’s give it a final score of eight.) is a highly entertaining and suspenseful film that builds steadily toward a truly exciting denouement. Its only detriment is that it’s a bit too vague and ambiguous about Lara’s guilt or innocence. Nevertheless it is well worth seeing, and because I’m not sure how much longer it will be playing in this area, you may want to try get to the theater within in the next three days.


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