Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Next Three Days

2010, PG13, 133 min.

IMDB says... A married couple's life is turned upside down when the wife is accused of a murder.

The 73rd Virgin says... We meet John Brennan (Russell Crowe) at a restaurant meal with friends, and Lara Brennan (Elizabeth Banks – a bit too hot, successful and young to be married to John who is a graying, slightly frumpy junior college professor) shows up late and flashes a bitchy side. The next morning at breakfast she’s fine, has just given herself her insulin shot, notices a blood spot on her overcoat, and begins to wash it out when the police burst in, cuff her and John (not sure why him) and accuse her of murdering her boss. And leave their baby screaming at the table.

And with perfect pacing the script re-creates the evening, the evidence, the conviction and appeals, and the family’s dramatically altered life as she begins a 20-year sentence. From there it only slows down slightly to introduce us to John’s iconic parents who patiently help care for the child while John keeps working, keeps paying lawyers, keeps going further into debt, and keeps visiting his wife.

Out of desperation he begins Googling prison experts and stumbles on to a book by a jail break artist named Damon Pennington (the movie is dedicated to him so apparently he’s a real person) played in only one good scene by sensei Liam Neeson. Pennington disavows him of any hope of a normal life if he attempts to bust his wife out and then describes for us how hard it will be to pull off.

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Amazingly, rather than giving us fantastic scenes of planning and perfect execution, we get about an hour of John’s stumbling attempts at a plan. The movie does a great job of approximating how damned hard it would be to think of everything. With agonizing nervousness and newbie mistakes John begins to pull together a plan for fake IDs, rental cars, cash acquisition, and escape routes. Crowe’s sorrowful eyes and beefy earnestness are very good in this part. He’s got a plan but jeez it’s a mess and he is feeling his way.

Here he has learned how to make a “bump-key” from a YouTube video and decides to practice with it once at the jail to see if it works. A lady in line in front of him knows what he did, but covers for him, well…just cuz.
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Finally, when Lara’s last appeal has failed, and she is notified that she will soon be going to a more secure prison, he has to act fast. He needs money. This leads him to do something junior college literature professors don’t normally do. Crowe’s last look in the mirror as the movie ends may be there for him to consider that he may have gone over the line here and there.

Here his father has been snooping through his pockets and hands his jacket to him on the way out clearly indicating he knows what’s up.
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The last 50 minutes or so is devoted to their attempted escape and for whatever reason I was completely engaged. There are several red herrings thrown in to hint at how they might get caught. Perhaps the only weakness is the police seem awfully quick on the uptake as tiny bits of circumstantial evidence float up into their busy lives, yet they almost instantly make the right call. But that at least adds to the tension.

A lurking subtext is how we are all as travelers subject to constant scrutiny and interruption. Even a law & order guy like me can feel sympathy for this perfect couple and their difficulty of free movement post-9-11.

The script neatly tells us much about the plan but keeps enough back to give us a slow reveal of a few fresh aspects of it as is necessary to keep the tension and the action moving. Of course, there are laughable lapses of reality in how jails actually work and how people enter and exit customs, but I didn’t notice any of them while watching. IMDB has an entire page of goofs, factual errors, plot holes, etc. Quibbles, quibbles. But having been in downtown Pittsburgh on a night the Pirates are at home when there was a sea of gold and black jackets and hats, I can say that scene is perfect.

This one slipped under my finicky radar in 2010. It would seem to have a fine pedigree with Crowe starring and Paul Haggis directing/screenwriting. They both have significant hits in the past few years, but with an estimated budget of 35 million and domestic gross of 21 million something must have gone wrong. And that’s a pity, because this is a consistently tense and entertaining 2 hour 13 minute movie.

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