Did she or didn’t she? The question infects The Next Three Days like a virus.
The case, at first glance, seems ironclad. One afternoon, Laura Brennan argues with her boss. That evening, the boss is found dead by the side of her still-parked car, her skull crushed by a fire extinguisher. The next morning, police burst through the front door of Lara’s house and arrest her—in front of John, her horrified husband, and Luke, her bewildered 3-year-old son.
Lara has the victim’s blood on her coat and her fingerprints all over the murder weapon. She insists she’s innocent, but the evidence is overwhelming. She’s convicted of murder.
Three years later, Lara’s appeals are spent. Luke, now 6, gets picked on at school because his mom’s in prison, and he can barely even look at her when his dad takes him to visit. Lara’s lawyer tells John there’s no realistic legal recourse left, and John begins to doubt that the lawyer ever believed Lara was innocent in the first place.
“It no longer matters what we believe,” the lawyer shouts. “Lara is not getting out!”
But John can’t—won’t—accept that. Never mind the blood. Never mind the fingerprints. He knows Lara’s innocent—knows it in the core of his being. And so when every last thread of legitimate hope has been snapped, John begins to consider a less legitimate recourse.
Breaking Lara out of prison and fleeing the country will take a lot of planning and lot of guts. It’ll take everything he’s got and then some. But he can’t leave Lara to fester in prison. He won’t allow it.
While John’s convinced of her innocence, we, in the audience, are left to wonder. Is John trying to rescue an innocent woman? Or has he slipped into a dangerous delusion and is trying to free a killer?
The Next Three Days is, at its core, a love story. We often talk about how we’d do anything for our loved ones: John carries it out.
This driving love of John’s doesn’t manifest itself in the healthiest of ways—or even in legal ways. We question his sanity at every turn, and we know this laudatory passion of his could get he, Lara and his little boy killed. But still, it’s there: He loves his wife with an unmatched fervor and believes in her with an unquestioned ardor. Nothing, nobody, can convince him of her guilt—and there’s something quite beautiful about that.
Lara, for her part, cares for her husband, too. Though there comes a time when she tries to push him away emotionally, we can’t help but speculate that she does so for his own good and the good of their son.
Both are gentle, attentive parents. Lara brightens up whenever she sees Luke—or even sees pictures of him. And her demeanor toward him doesn’t change when Luke refuses to acknowledge her existence. John reads Luke his mother’s letters every night before bed. And when he begins to plot Lara’s escape, he tries (not altogether successfully) to keep Luke in a protective bubble of normalcy.
One of Lara’s shirts shows a bit too much. John’s sister-in-law, who’s wearing a revealing dress, makes a crude pass at him. On a much more healthy plane, Lara and John kiss passionately and begin to make out in their car. When John visits Lara in prison, Lara asks him to run for governor so he can overturn the state’s conjugal-visit ban. She says she doesn’t know if she can last another 20 years.
We see a couple of black-and-white flashbacks to the murder, where the extinguisher hammers into Lara’s boss’s head, sending her to the asphalt where blood pools around her head.
In prison, Lara tries to commit suicide. And it seems that the impetus to breaking her out comes from John seeing her in the bed with her wrists bandaged and bloodstained. Later, Lara tries to kill herself again, this time by falling from a rapidly moving vehicle.
In an effort to get money to flee the country, John attacks a couple of drug dealers. He first threatens one with a gun (while holding the other as protection), then shoots the man in an effort to get him to confess where he keeps his money. When the dealer still won’t say, John pours alcohol around the living room in which they’re standing and sets it on fire. A shootout ensues, leaving one of the dealers dead and the other mortally wounded. After John pulls the injured dealer out of the blazing house, he expires in the back seat of John’s car. John leaves the body at a bus stop.
While trying to scrounge up some fake IDs, John runs into a pair of thugs who brutally beat him and kick him, leaving his face a mass of blood (and scarred throughout the rest of the film). John threatens several folks with a gun (hitting a policeman with it at one juncture).
Luke tells John that one of his classmates was making fun of his mother. “Did you hit him?” John asks. “Yeah,” Luke says. “Good,” John returns.
Two f-words, three s-words and several milder profanities, including “a‑‑,” “b‑‑ch,” “d‑‑n” and “h‑‑‑.” God’s name is paired with “d‑‑n,” and Jesus’ is abused a half-dozen times. Crude terms are tossed around for breasts and testicles.
John buys Oxycontin from a drug dealer—but he doesn’t appear to be interested in actually using it. (He’s mainly trying to make contact with someone who can forge some fake IDs for him.) A meth house serves as the setting for the fight he has with the drug dealers. Characters drink wine and beer.
John lies, cheats, steals, breaks into cars and falsifies medical records. Along the way he puts his son in some highly compromising situations and takes moviegoers through a virtual classroom curriculum on “how to break the law.”
After nearly getting caught using his own version of a bump key, John throws up.
The film takes its central theme from Don Quixote, the fictional, delusional Spaniard who believed he was a fairy tale hero. John, an English professor at a community college, is shown giving a lecture on Quixote—long a symbol of the triumph of imaginative truth over literal truth. He theorizes that, perhaps, it’s better to live believing a fairy tale than succumb to accepting a reality that doesn’t meet your needs.
“What if we choose to believe in a reality purely of our own making?” John asks.
We’re set up to come to grips with the idea that John is pursuing his own reality at the expense of the real one. And we wonder whether this man’s bullheaded insistence that his wife is innocent, even when everything (and I mean everything) points to her guilt, can possibly culminate in anything close to a happy ending.
It can’t. Because it’s really beside the point whether John is justified in believing in his wife or is loopy as a loon. Even if Lara were innocent, it wouldn’t lend any sort of morality to the lengths John goes to in order to free her. You just don’t go busting folks out of jail, no matter how fervently you believe they’re innocent. And neither does Plugged In generally give glowing reviews to movies with bloody violence and handfuls of curse words. We could spend all day discussing the literary heft of mental vs. physical realities, but we’re always going to have to get back to those basics.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.