CHICAGO – Mention the name Harry Lennix, and images of his many character roles are bound to emerge – Harold Cooper in the TV series “The Blacklist,” General Swanwick from “Batman v Superman” and Commissioner Blades from Spike Lee’s recent “Chi-Raq.” The deeply knowledgeable Lennix brings his years of dramatic expertise, as he directs the Congo Square Theatre Company’s world premiere stage play “A Small Oak Tree Runs Red.’
Russell Crowe Goes Hitchcockian in Taut ‘The Next Three Days’
CHICAGO – The suspense thriller is a delicate art that depends on situational realism and unlikely circumstances cohabiting in a heart-pounding plot. The Master of the genre was Alfred Hitchcock, who often put ordinary people in these nail biting scenarios. Director Paul Haggis (”Crash”) uses this theme and does the Master proud in “The Next Three Days.”
Russell Crowe is John Brennan, a nebbishy Pittsburgh college instructor with a hard-charging wife Lara (Elizabeth Banks) and young son. The film opens with a flashback to a birthday dinner with John’s brother and sister-in-law. There is an outburst at dinner, and Lara is overzealously angry. The confrontation turns ugly, and John leads his wife out of the restaurant.
There is something strange in the context of the outburst, as Lara discovers a spot of blood on her coat. She is washing the stain out the next morning as the police burst in, arresting her and charging her with the murder of her boss. Lara had a very public disagreement with her superior the night of the murder (the same night as the restaurant incident) and circumstantial evidence points completely to her guilt. The justice system does the rest, and Lara is sentenced to life imprisonment.
The sentence wakes up the usually sad sack John, who berates their attorney (Daniel Stern) unmercifully and hits a wall of frustration when the lawyer tells him the case cannot be appealed successfully. This memory brings him back to the present, where John is now searching for other means of getting his beloved wife out of prison, including the usually impossible notion of breaking her out.
Photo credit: Phil Caruso for © Lionsgate
One concept is planted in John’s head. The gathering of knowledge that it takes to attempt it leads him to a breakout expert (Liam Neeson), an attractive single mother (Olivia Wilde) who may provide some distraction and his estranged father (Brian Dennehy) who seems to know a little more than he lets on. The next three days will determine everything.
As was mentioned earlier, the suspense thriller is a delicate art, spun like a spider’s web, with thin threads that can break at any moment, but can also snare an audience that feeds into it. Screenwriter and director Paul Haggis, adapting a foreign film version of the story, weaves a tremendously entertaining piece of subterfuge. The best suspense stories always leaves us guessing, and the motivations presented in The Next Three Days points towards the mysteries and secrets of the interior being. Lara is prone to anger, John’s Dad is a sullen naysayer and even John, in all his ‘what I did for love’ mode, seems possessed by something strange. In other words, in the best Hitchcockian tone, nothing is what it seems.
The set-up of the potential prison break is formidable. Haggis’s use of the modern YouTube video is particularly fun, as John looks up various ways to crack the general security lock-down that has occured post 9/11. This is surprising access for anybody to use, and reasonably gets around the scare tactics of locks and lasers. Liam Neeson’s cameo as the breakout expert, complete with mysterious scar, is a crazy quilt of character presence, one of those ten minute roles that could garner an Oscar nod. Haggis even throws in a MacGuffin (another Hitchcockian term, a plot point that seems important then isn’t), which diverts precisely.
Pulling the whole thing off requires a buy-in from a substantial cast, and nobody disappoints, especially the leads. Crowe is a complete performer, wearing a character like a tailored suit. He never overdoes the obsession, but gives enough so that his motives remain viable. There is a bit of ‘Death Wish’ feeling to him, which distracts at times but remains appropriate. He simply never loses the love for Lara, although she is difficult. Elizabeth Banks is a revelation here, expanding her light-as-air persona into a mean ball of anger. She gives an Oscar worthy portrayal.
If Hitchcock would have been in a different era, he definitely would have used Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as a setting for one of this unique tales. Haggis is inspired by this strange American city, a former burly industrial town, set on three rivers, which also was the birthplace of Andy Warhol. It is the perfect non-escape route, with easy ways to lock down in the event of an emergency. Its hilly terrain also features the steep angles that filmmakers love, creating an essence of atmosphere that is vital for the suspense thriller.
Photo credit: Phil Caruso for © Lionsgate
There are a few overindulgent moments and questionable interactions in the way John set ups his plan, but it is forgivable due to the overall pleasure the film provides. As in the best of the genre, it evokes laughter, empathy and gratifying oh-my-gosh turns.
How far would you go for someone you truly loved? That is the theme of The Next Three Days, setting free a true passion burning underneath the surface of everyday life. When backed up against it, we are smarter than we think. The Master himself, Alfred Hitchcock, would be proud.