Notes on “The Next Three Days”

by Adam Reger

After missing it in theaters and taking my sweet time about having Netflix send me a copy, this weekend I finally checked out The Next Three Days, the Russell Crowe film that shot in Pittsburgh over the summer and fall of 2009. I felt compelled to watch it—and guilty that I so far hadn’t—because my brother worked on the film as a locations assistant, crashing on my futon for at least part of his stay in Pittsburgh.

I can’t really offer a comprehensive review of the film. I thought it was decent. If you like Russell Crowe, you might like it: he gives what you might call a “brooding” performance, operating in sad sack mode rather than intense mode; think The Insider rather than Gladiator. His character, a community-college professor whose wife is jailed for murder, has the single-minded purpose of springing his wife from prison, and Crowe is believable as a regular guy who’s being ground down by the pressure of master-minding this plan while also teaching and taking care of their young son. My feeling was that Crowe did a good job with a limited script; this character isn’t very complex.

Which is the same complaint I’d make of the entire story. My brother loaned me a copy of the script and I thought at the time that while on the one hand, the film was classically structured, on the other hand it was so simple that it just felt flat. The Next Three Days is about a guy who, at the end of the first act, decides to break his wife out of jail. He spends the second act plotting how he’s going to break her out of jail. The third act is him breaking her out of jail and escaping to South America.

If you have an attachment to Pittsburgh, or like seeing Pittsburgh in movies, you’ll enjoy that aspect of it. My hunch is that the director and screenwriter, Paul Haggis, found out about Pennsylvania’s tax breaks for films and modified an existing or in-the-works screenplay accordingly. The film takes a could-be-anywhere plot and lays it over top of the ‘burgh, with a few nods to our local sports teams, a couple shots from Mount Washington, and some acknowledgments in the script that we’ve got a lot of bridges and tunnels here. No one has a Pittsburgh accent, and other than “downtown,” you don’t hear the name of a neighborhood mentioned. I’ll be the first to admit this is a silly quibble, though; I’m sure most of the rest of the country (and world) could give a shit whether the crusty Pittsburgh cops in the movie sound at all like actual Pittsburgh PD. (They don’t, for the record. I thought the cops in the film were so hilariously under-developed—two different cops are given only the personality trait of being huge assholes (one, upon entering a crime scene, leans down to whisper in the ear of a crime-scene photographer, “Get out of my way”)—that Haggis might be making an anti-cop statement. Remember Matt Dillon in Crash? Just putting that out there.)

One interesting extra-textual note to the film is that as it was being filmed here, Paul Haggis was semi-publicly breaking with the Church of Scientology. The fantastic Lawrence Wright had a recent New Yorker article on Haggis’s break, containing tons of amazing information about the CoS. (It’s super-long but totally engrossing.) This is for someone else to flesh out, but given the incredible stresses and dangers of “escaping” Scientology, could someone read The Next Three Days as a personal metaphor for Haggis’s own escape?