Based on the 2007 French film Pour Elle, The Next Three Days tells the story of John Brennan (Russell Crowe) whose life is thrown into upheaval when his wife, Lara (Elizabeth Banks), is convicted of murder. What follows is an awkwardly paced, flimsy story line in which John attempts to break his wife out of prison. Director Paul Haggis (Crash, Million Dollar Baby) seems to have forgotten the cardinal rule of crafting a thriller: The film must be, at least at key moments, smarter than its audience.
The problem is that John is not smarter than us. He does what I suppose any ordinary schmo would do in the same position. He Googles it, he asks an expert (Liam Neeson in a cameo role), he fumbles through. Unfortunately, breaking someone out of prison is not for the average guy, and at every turn, John's escape route requires coincidence and suspension of disbelief to stay afloat.
The film's most interesting element is John's uncertain moral code. He bypasses society's version of justice in favor of his own. We do not know at first whether or not Lara has committed murder. We see her fiery temper within the first five minutes of the film, and the flashbacks to the crime are intentionally vague. Would John be a hero for saving his murderess wife? What if it takes murdering anyone who stands in his way?
By the end of the film, however, Haggis has removed all doubt of Lara's guilt, effectively deflating any moral complexities into a soporific knight's tale. Worse, it is a long ambling knight's tale, with too much build-up on the front end and an action-crammed ending. Rushed to the end by a series of near misses and preposterous circumstances, the audience is as eager to leave the theater as the Brennans are to leave Pittsburgh. At one moment in their escape, Lara hangs out of a speeding car, John holding her hand for dear life, the vehicle spinning out of control into the path of an oncoming semi truck. The car skids safely to the side. John gets out and waves to the trucker as a signal that everything is fine, and the trucker drives away, as if this sort of thing happens all the time.
Indeed, what the film lacks is an understanding of how remarkable a feat it is to break someone out of prison (or even a heavily guarded hospital room, in this case) and flee to a foreign country with a child in tow. More than luck and pluck, it requires connections and savvy.