Have you ever seen a movie that is so intense that it paralyzes you to your seat as you watch it? You can't keep your eyes off it; you are so invested in the character(s) that you simply have to keep watching to see if they can get out of their plight or not. In fact, The Next Three Days was on a level so intense that, a few times, I wanted to turn off the movie because it was honestly difficult to watch the characters go through what they were going through. I didn't know whether they would succeed or fail, but I almost turned it off because I couldn't bear to see either scenario play out to completion. It isn't since I saw The Departed that I've encountered a movie that honestly stressed me out watching it. And, though I'm not sure I could bring myself to watch it again, I think that this is a sign of a truly powerful film.
The premise of The Next Three Days is rather simple; a husband, wife, and son's family life is ripped to pieces when the wife is imprisoned for murder. While we don't know for sure whether or not the wife did commit the murder, the husband (Russell Crowe) makes it his mission to try and get her out through any means necessary. First he tries to get her out through legal means and assessment of the case against her but, when that fails, he considers breaking the law to get her out.
The Power of Empathy
What makes The Next Three Days such a successful movie is through a powerful sense of connection to the characters. Before they are broken apart, the life of the family in this movie is idyllic, though not without flaws. The perfect assessment is that it is realistic. Having some stock footage of happy, laughing people is normal for movies to deliver before they shake things up; it is a cheap way of creating some empathy for the characters. But it is easy to cross over that line and for it to feel shallow and only surface-value. This movie surpasses that hurdle to give us a family that, though not perfect in every way, is genuinely happy. And it is this detail that puts us firmly behind Russell Crowe's character as he tries to recapture that, through his noble efforts to make prison visits touching instead of painful, as well as through his never ending mission to reunite the family as it once was.
And yet this film doesn't rest on its laurels and simply deliver an entertaining get-the-girl-out-of-jail sequence. Instead it actually goes into what makes the characters tick. We get both sides on Russell Crowe: we see that his quest to acquire freedom for his wife threatens to consume him; it impacts his relationship with his family, friends, and son. At times it becomes clear that to focus so utterly on this goal is to give up on living life as it was meant to be. And thus the film, at times, becomes torturous to watch. We want him to succeed in reuniting his family as they were. Yet simultaneously we see clearly that it would be better for him if he stopped. It is this indecision that gnaws at us as it similarly agonizes the character.
Do Not Try This at Home
A unique facet of this movie that makes it incredibly interesting to watch is the way in which Russell Crowe's character seeks to find freedom for his wife. In movies, particularly heist movies, we have come to expect that the characters involved are aces at their game. We expect a crazy complicated plan to pan out or, if it does not, then it will only fail at the end. We are used to our criminals being often suave and sexy, not hesitating for a moment.
The Next Three Days subverts that expectation by showing us, step-by-step, how intense and difficult it is to plan criminal activities like that. Russell Crowe's teacher is so clearly out of his element that you just want to scream at him to get out, for his own safety if nothing else. An early example is when he tries to illegally acquire fake passports and social security numbers. He is told to meet a guy at a dive bar at some place he's never been to. He's told to bring a sizable sum of cash to pay up front. And, when he shows up, he is taken into the back alleyway and has the crap beaten out of him and all the money stolen. Those who would have dealt with him knew that Russell Crowe's character didn't know what he was doing. And he suffers for it.
There are numerous moments like that where, in planning to free his wife, he makes blunders that you and I would make just as blindly as he. It speaks to how difficult it is to commit crimes in real life; you have to be both mentally prepared and you can't just rely on how-to Youtube videos (as he does in this movie). Thus, every step of the way as we watch Russell Crowe, it is hard to resist the urge to see him as in over his head, which makes every moment that much more insane to watch.
The incredible character empathy and what feels like a very realistic view of how an average Joe would try to successfully get away with crime combines to make for a gripping film. I won't say whether he gets caught or killed in the end or not, just like I won't say whether his wife actually killed someone or not. There are so many questions and concerns that arise in this movie that it, even now, is almost a stress to think about.
Dynamite performances by all of the supporting actors only serve to make what was already a good movie even better. Russell Crowe could almost certainly have carried this alone, but the support he gets on every level turns a good movie great. I highly recommend this to anyone BUT, and this is a big but, you have to recognize that this movie will put you through the emotional wringer. While I won't say that it is designed to make you cry, it IS designed to give you a miniature heart attack anytime something earth-shaking happens to one of the characters. Thus it is a miracle that I'm still alive. If you can handle a high stress level movie, then definitely check this out. If not, then I suggest you avoid dying early.