The Next Three Days: Realism in Pop Culture

Denisa and I watched The Next Three Days last week, a movie that focuses on the efforts of a college English professor to free his wife from prison. It’s directed by Paul Haggis (Crash, Million Dollar Baby, Casino Royale) and stars Russell Crowe.

First off, the review in a nutshell: Fantastic movie. Three and a half stars, easy. One of the most intense suspense/thrillers I’ve seen in quite a while. We both really enjoyed it.

Now that that’s out of the way, I can talk about what’s on my mind. The premise (college English professor tries to free his wife from prison) could have gone in so many different directions. I mean, you could have a comedy with that premise, with the main character doing a series of idiotic things, only to keep making things worse. You could have an Oceans 11 sort of a romp, with the characters just being so darn brilliant that you as a viewer just sit back and enjoy them doing brilliant, witty things. Or you could have what this movie was: a white-knuckle ride where you have no idea what will happen next.

Why is that? Why can the same premise provide so many different levels of film? As I thought about it, I’ve decided it comes down to the degree realism is allowed to penetrate the movie’s plot and script. In a comedy, there’s going to be very little in the way of realism. Consequences will only pop up when they have a punchline. Audiences understand this, and so they don’t usually get too irate when the comedy has something unrealistic in it. (Think Pink Panther movies) (This is actually one of the reasons I hate Life is Beautiful, the movie about the guy who tries to convince his son that the concentration camp they’re in isn’t so bad, after all. The movie has very little realism throughout it–until (SPOILER) he dies at the end. The movie’s great, but the ending stinks–mainly because it wasn’t a realistic movie, until they decide to sucker punch the audience at the end. Blech.)

But I digress.

The Next Three Days works as a thriller because it has very real consequences. We see quite clearly what will happen to Russell Crowe if his plans go wrong. He’ll go to prison. He might be shot. His son will be an orphan. The stakes are very high. The realism and tension is further heightened by the fact that Crowe has no super powers. He’s smart, but he has no underworld connections. He needs to get fake passports? Great. How in the world does he do that? I mean, how would *you* do it? If I suddenly needed some, I haven’t the faintest idea how I would get them.

Crowe tries to solve his problem as best he can, with the resources available. It’s easy to relate to him and put yourself in his shoes–as opposed to an action film, where the main character essentially becomes Superman, able to do incredible feats and only come out with a few bruises. One trick to having a successful movie (in my humble opinion) is to be consistent in the reality level. If Crowe were suddenly to reveal that he had ninja training (1/2 way into the movie), it would hurt the film a great deal. The movie is good because it forces Crowe to work the problem through with the resources he has available, and those resources are clearly defined right from the beginning.

Anyway. That’s all I have time for now. Happy Columbus Day, everyone. 🙂

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