The Next Three Days
For me that pretty much describes how I felt watching The Next Three Days, the new film from writer and director Paul Haggis. As the central plot of the film begins to rise so did the tension, and my insides were indeed mixed up in knots from there on, and Mr Haggis, cast and crew kept applying pressure until the very end, and even then...
Well let me not get ahead of myself, suffice to say that The Next Three Days is a perfect example of a thriller and made me feel more than most films did last year. What a great start to 2011.
It's another Hollywood film that does well despite the tag of remake, as I think you'll agree that most American remakes don't turn out as well as their foreign counterparts, and while I haven't seen the original, I would struggle to believe that it can be a lot better than the remake. We'll see how that statement holds up when I finally see it. For now, let me tell you my thoughts on this film, just hours after seeing it.
The Next Three Days tells the story of a husband who sees his wife arrested one morning for the murder of her boss. The evidence is damning in the eyes of the court, and her only defence is her word, a small item no one can find, and a similarly elusive stranger running from the scene. Everything else points the law to believe she's guilty, and so she remains in prison.
The husband is completely convinced of her innocence and works tirelessly to free her, looking after their child and working as a teacher while he spends the rest of his time and money working on her appeal.
However the appeal will never be heard. There's just nothing new in the case and after three years there is no way that she will be released before her time is served.
She is at the end emotionally and can't see living inside prison with her husband visiting and her son distanced from her by the strange surroundings that he doesn't quite understand, and when she takes drastic action herself, he sees only one avenue left, to break her out of jail, and so he begins planning her escape.
The Next Three Days is an incredibly tense thriller that never really lets go from the moment it begins the core of the story. It manages to do this through a number of key areas, the most important being the characters themselves, they are so well written and performed that you are pulled into their lives and engaged with them very early on. There they capture your sympathies and you feel caught up with them emotionally, willing them on and hoping that they can make it through the events unfolding around them, even when you know it's hopeless.
Another is the realism of the story, something I felt was most obvious in the portrayal of the police. They aren't shown as the usual bumbling cops, the usual all good or all nasty characters, there's depth and breadth to them and they're pulled back from the clichéd police characters we so often see.
They aren't shown as totally believing the woman is the murderer, in fact their opinion isn't even entered into it, and there's no one item that leads them directly to the husband but rather a number of clues and connections discovered through the investigation. Their fallibilities are not through incompetence rather procedure and real world limitations.
There's also the way the planning phase is portrayed, much like Ben Affleck's The Town (Filmstalker review) we don't concentrate on the planning and reveal how the character will execute his plan before we see him execute it, building the tension through watching him execute his plan and seeing what might and can go wrong. Instead we are uncertain of his planning and the tension is ramped up while we watch the execution, unsure of why he might be doing something, how any single moment will turn out and whether it's going to plan or not. I find this much more effective at building more tension than if we knew how events were supposed to play out.
There are some key elements which are superbly built and played upon, such as the fifteen and thirty five minute time zones. These are firmly placed early on and we're reminded of them along with the character, realising that time is incredibly precious throughout, helping to layer on the tension.
Within the story itself there are a number of things that are subtlety seen or referred to and are never over explained or over exposed on screen, moments such as seeing the child's wall drawing of his father's plan they leave behind, or the discovery of part of the plan and what effect that has on the execution.
When you add up all these elements we see why the film is such a strong thriller, however it points clearly to the fact that it's the script that is powering the film on and building the tension from the moment we see him decide his course of action.
In fact the tension doesn't even let up during the quiet scene. Often in thrillers we will see the tension built up, released a little, built up higher, released, built higher, and powered home with a big release. Not here. There is one big quiet scene where you start to relax a little, breathe easier and the tension starts to ease, but I found myself worrying for the characters for different reasons and confused as to what the possibilities for them could be next. It's a clever moment for as soon as I relaxed it was back with a bit of a sucker punch.
I really do appreciate the strength of writing in this script and how well it has made it to the screen. There may be a very few stock thriller moments in the film but they don't wholly play out the way you expect and the typical ease up moments are far from that.
I would like to say something about the ending, but I really can't without giving something away. I will say that it's a satisfying conclusion that doesn't let that tension go. I found myself wondering what was going through the mind of the lead character at that moment and thinking how it related back to an earlier discussion in the film.
I'm not a huge Russell Crowe fan, he's a good actor and when he's on he really can be on, and I wasn't entirely convinced he would play this role without coming across as, well, Russell Crowe. He didn't though, and I was pulled into his performance and the character. He was pretty restrained throughout and even opened himself up showing quite a few different emotional layers to the character, there was no trouble in him playing someone other than the gruff, stilted character we sometimes see him pegged as, and I thoroughly believed he was all out to reunite with his wife.
Elizabeth Banks plays his wife and plays her excellently, from the amusing opening scene in the restaurant through the emotional visits in the prison and the one look and turn of the head in the hospital bed, she gives another natural and engaging performance. I do love watching her on screen for she just makes the whole task of acting seem so easy.
Together they work really well, and there are two scenes that really hammer that home, both when they are sitting either side of the glass panel in the prison visiting area. The first is very powerful and both their reactions hook you into the emotions that they are feeling right there, the second shows the strength and determination in Crowe's character and a glimmer of hope appearing back in Banks'.
There's a strong supporting cast too, Liam Neeson, Olivia Wilde, Brian Dennehy, Lennie James, Jason Beghe and Daniel Stern are a number of recognisable faces who play roles which you might think are smaller than they would usually take, however they all help to raise the bar on the film and make strong connections with the leads. There's a moment between Dennehy and Crowe that is wonderfully played out, and throughout the film James proves he's an actor that should be getting bigger and better parts.
The editing and direction deserve a mention second to the script, for they help keep the pace going and build that tension throughout, never exposing us to too much and ensuring we aren't given too much of a breather.
I really enjoyed The Next Three Days, it's an emotionally strong thriller that manages to build the tension throughout and never quite turns out the way you might expect, even when it appears to on the surface.
The core of the film is the relationship between the two characters and what they will do for each other, that has to be utterly believable and nigh on unbreakable, you have to understand it and feel it as they do, and I think Paul Haggis, Russell Crowe and Elizabeth Banks have managed just that.
I love thrillers, and this thriller had my guts twisted up through the second half right to the end. I was tensed up while watching, tapping my fingers together, mouthing encouragement at the screen, and was never really sure how some of the turns were going to play out. For me that's what a thriller needs to do and that's what it delivers.
Strong performances, excellent script, great editing and direction all help to deliver the pace and tension in The Next Three Days. A highly enjoyable thriller that will grab you, pull you close, and have you on the edge of your seat without the need for huge explosions or massive terrorist threats to get you there.
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