Paul Haggis loses his way in “The Next Three Days,” a labored prison escape drama that never recovers from a serious miscalculation midway through and then goes completely off the rails in the end.
Russell Crowe plays a sometimes deliberate and over-thinking professor named John Brennan who is completely devoted to his sometimes hot-tempered and impetuous wife Lara (Elizabeth Banks). After a public quarrel, Lara’s boss is murdered and Lara is arrested. She protests her innocence, but the circumstantial evidence is too persuasive, and she is found guilty. Three years later, all of her appeals exhausted, she cannot bear the thought of a life in prison, and attempts suicide. John, who teaches “Don Quixote” and knows something about righteous quests, decides he will find a way for her to escape. “I promise you, this will not be your life.” He consults an expert (a brief movie-brightening moment with Liam Neeson), watches a video on YouTube about skeleton keys, and comes up with a plan.
Every movie creates a world for us, and each of them can be plotted along the continuum between real world (a verite documentary) and movie world (flying dragons, superheroes, planets with long blue people). It does not matter at which point a movie locates itself, but once it does, it has to stay there. If you tell us horses can fly in one scene, then don’t tell us they can’t in the next. This movie tells us that justice matters, killing people is wrong, and that John is an English professor. It establishes itself as being on the drama-about-people-like-us point on the continuum. It then veers into a whole other over-the-top heist-style scenario with one of those plans where a lot of things have to go exactly right and then somehow they all do and killing people might not be such a bad thing after all. And then it insults the intelligence and goodwill of the audience with an ending that is jarringly out of place. One of the worst mistakes a movie can make is to assume greater fondness for its characters than we are willing to feel. This movie never lets us like its characters and then tries to make that seem like our fault.