Paul Haggis is fascinated with choices and dilemmas. He builds movies out of the idea that none of us know how we’ll react when put in a stressful, dangerous or untenable position.
He did it repeatedly in the Oscar-winning “Crash” and again in “In the Valley of Elah.” And he does it again in “The Next Three Days,” a film adapted from a French thriller, in which Russell Crowe is cast as Mr. Mom – Extreme Makeover.
OK, so that’s glib and cheap. In fact, Crowe, an actor whose masculinity in films rarely topples over into swaggering macho, plays a gentle soul: a college teacher named John. He’s first glimpsed out to dinner with his wife Lara (Elizabeth Banks), his brother Mick (Michael Bule) and his sister-in-law Erin (Moran Atias). Indeed, he watches in amusement as his feisty wife slugs it out verbally with his bombshell sister-in-law.
John, by comparison, is quiet and bookish, the obvious front-line caregiver for their young son. Where his wife battles in the corporate trenches, John teaches English (and in his lone classroom scene, is shown lecturing on “Don Quixote,” which probably is a little on-the-nose).
Then, out of the blue, the police barge through their front door with search warrants and an arrest warrant for Lara. Before we know it, it’s three years later, Lara is still in jail serving a life term for a murder of which she claims to be innocent – and John has exhausted all of his appeals.
Aghast at the injustice, eaten up by his helplessness to do anything for his wife – other than visit regularly with their increasingly remote son – John begins to formulate an idea. Then he does what any academic would do: He starts compiling research on that idea – which involves a notion of breaking Lara out of the county jail where she is being held.
He begins consuming the literature on the subject, which leads him to an ex-con (a cameo by Liam Neeson) who wrote a book about his seven successful prison breaks. Then John starts making lists based on the information he got from the ex-con, and drawing maps. For example, if local law enforcement closes down the city’s access routes within 15 minutes of the jail break, how far away does he have to be to avoid capture?
He slowly assembles the requisite materials: fake passports (an ordeal for a square like John), enough cash to live on (try selling a house in this market), and a plan for how to get Lara out of the jail.
But his careful planning – really, it becomes a kind of hobby, an abstract idea with no real jumping-off point – suddenly gets put on the fast track: Because Lara’s appeals have all been denied, she will be moved in 72 hours – three days – from the county jail, where she’s been held, to the state prison, where she’ll serve her life sentence.
At that point, Haggis’ film, which has taken its time showing us a study of a man testing the lines he will and won’t cross, suddenly kicks into high gear. John must stop planning and start acting – beginning with an effort to round up enough cash for him and his family to live on, once they get away
Cinematographer Stephane Fontaine and editor Jo Francis work with Haggis to give that last half-hour of the film a punishing pace as John sets his plan in motion – but finds himself being hunted by a cop (Lennie James) who seems to be reading John’s mind and is only a step or so behind him.
Crowe rarely erupts into moments of big emotion, letting us feel his pain and anxiety without physicalizing it overtly. It’s a big performance that’s beautifully contained, a man discovering his own limits or lack of them when it comes to protecting his family.
“The Next Three Days” is thought-provoking, if not always thrilling. Crowe and Banks lead a cast that features a number of notable cameos (beside Neeson, there’s Brian Dennehy in an almost wordless role as Crowe’s father, along with Daniel Stern and Trudy Styler). In the end, it’s a satisfying thriller with crisp action sequences, once it gets around to that part of Haggis’ story-telling agenda.