Walking with his six-year-old son, John (Russell Crowe) wonders how he’s gotten into a fight at school with his best friend. “Did he say something mean about your mom?” dad asks little Luke (Ty Simpkins). Even as the boy tries to avoid answering, his dad encourages him, if it happens again, he has permission to take action. Aggressive action.
There are two things striking about this early moment in The Next Three Days, a remake of the 2008 French thriller Pour Elle. First, father and son are not walking home from school, as you might from the bright sky behind them, but instead, to the Allegheny County Jail, where, indeed, Luke’s mom Lara (Elizabeth Banks) has been incarcerated for the past three years. And second, John voices something like an ethos here, one that will shape his own choices to come: when beset, strike back.
John has plenty besetting him. Lara’s been sentenced to life for murdering her boss, a crime he firmly believes she did not commit. The film doesn’t give you much of a chance to believe or not believe, as their relationship and the homicide are treated with a similarly brutal economy: following a restaurant date with John’s brother (Michael Buie) and his wife (Moran Atias), that serves to showcase Lara’s short fuse, they engage in a bit of car-sex; the next morning, detectives bust in and haul Lara away, her then-three-old son bawling as dad, shoved and battered by cops, insists it will all be okay.
Cut forward three years to now, and nothing is okay. The lawyer (Daniel Stern) has given up on appeals (“It no longer matters what we believe: Lara is not getting out!”) and Luke resents his absent mom, Lara’s depressed and John’s teaching Don Quixote in his community college lit course. But wait. It so happens that tilting at windmills is just what John needs to be doing, or, as he puts it to his students, “What if we choose to live purely in a reality of our own making? Does that make us insane?”
And with this thudding literary analysis, the film dismisses the whirling insanity of what follows. John reads a book by Damon Pennington (Liam Neeson), a convict who’s escaped from prison seven times, then arranges an interview with the author, his face scarred and his newsboy cap fuzzy. When John lets slip that his queries may not be only hypothetical, Pennington raises an eyebrow in what might be bemusement, then lays out ground rules: be prepared to live in a place that doesn’t attract American attention, he advises (though his specific recommendation, “Think: Yemen,” is funny in its face) and have lots of cash on hand. And oh yes, are you the kind of man who can kill someone who gets in your way? Can you leave a child at a gas station? John takes notes.
Suffice it to say that John’s moral compass takes a beating. Not only does he have to drive his Prius down mean streets, he also has to make deals with ruffians (you know immediately not to trust an Oxy dealer played by RZA, but John is just clueless enough that he learns a valuable lesson). John’s increasing capacity for violence is mapped onto his scratched face and bruised body, as well as in his silent dad’s (Brian Dennehy) perplexed expression when he drops Luke off for a visit.
It’s not a small question, whether or not John might be capable of murder when he’s so determined that his wife is not. Even as he battles back against the bitter injustice of her punishment, he’s faced with inflicting worse on someone else. But as soon as it raises the specter of lasting costs, Paul Haggis’ movie forgets it and barrels ahead. True, anyone paying attention will know the series of cops on the case—including original homicide detectives Quinn (Jason Beghe) and Collero (Aisha Hinds) and the dogged Lieutenant Nabulsi (Lennie James)—are long steps behind John. “This guy’s a teacher?” someone wonders at last, a whole other sort of question—about class and expectations—that The Next Three Days won’t begin to answer.
John is a teacher, and his scheme is ingenious (even if it is a very big surprise for Lara, who seems almost irrelevant once the gears start up). John’s not Keyser Söze, but John does have a self-certainty and aptitude for rationalization and moral relativism that make him just a little creepy. Once or twice someone else notes or reflects this, as when another single parent at the park, Nicole (Olivia Wilde), tries to interest him in an ice cream, only to be flustered when he explains his wife is unable to look after her son because she’s in prison… “But she didn’t murder that woman!” As he waddles away with Luke, you hear Nicole calling her daughter: um, time to go.