The Next Three Days

Author: Paul Haggis
Genre: Thriller/Crime
Storyline: 6
Dialogue: 7
Characterization: 5
Writer’s Potential: 5

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Logline:

When his wife is imprisoned for a murder she didn’t commit, a family man schemes to break her out.

Synopsis:

Couple JOHN and LARA have dinner with John’s brother, MICK, and his wife, ERIT. Inspired by a fight Lara had with her boss, Erit poses the idea that women shouldn’t work for other women, because too many petty jeaousies prevent them from accomplishing anything. Despite the fight, Lara vehemently disagrees. After dinner, Lara’s livid. John tries to cheer her up. At first, it doesn’t work, but eventually, she cracks a smile. They have sex in the back of their car. They go home, pay the babysitter, look in on their sleeping son, LUKE (3), and have sex again. The next morning starts with a typical family breakfast, but it’s quickly interrupted by the arrival of police detectives QUINN and COLLERO. They have a search warrant, and they find blood on the shoulder of Lara’s jacket. They arrest Lara for the murder of her boss.

Three years later, Luke (now 6) wakes from a nightmare. John comes in to comfort him. The next day, they visit Lara in the county jail. Clearly traumatized, Luke remains distant from his mother, which disappoints her. They discuss typical husband/wife topics — what John is feeding Luke, their financial state, etc. — before Lara turns to the subject of her appeal. John tells her no news is good news. Some time later, John meets with their attorney, MEYER, who tells him the appeal was rejected. John gripes that the murder was clearly a robbery, and the case should be heard. Meyer is sympathetic, but when John mentions taking it to the Supreme Court, Meyer sends John away, telling him the Supreme Court just won’t hear murder cases. Angry, John storms out, saying he’ll find a lawyer who will fight for his wife.

John goes to the jail to tell Lara the bad news, but it’s written all over her face, so she won’t pick up the visitor phone and talk to him. She’s very upset. John drives into a working-class Pittsburgh neighborhood, where his parents (GEORGE and GRACE) live. Mick and Erit are at the house, too. John tells them all about the rejected appeal; everyone’s upset. Outside, John sees an incongruous flashy car driving through the dingy neighborhood. The driver pulls up to a cornerboy and picks up a fat wad of cash. John watches the transaction. Back at home, John pores through old evidence, flashing on the prosecution’s interpretation of events: on a rainy night, Lara’s boss stands at her car door when Lara bashes her head in with a fire extinguisher and speeds away. The phone rings, disturbing John’s thoughts. John arrives at the ER of a nearby hospital. Lara tried to kill herself. John tries to get in to see her, but he’s stopped by a burly, no-nonsense guard. A doctor approaches and takes pity on John, giving him a couple of minutes with Lara.

At the community college where John teaches, John moves through the library, trying to find any books he can about successful prison escapes. He finds one, written by DAMON PENNINGTON. John drives to Brooklyn, New York, to find Damon. He interviews Damon, recording the conversation. John asks Damon about the odds of successfully breaking someone out of the Allegheny County Jail and getting them out of Pittsburgh. Damon explains that each prison has a symbolic “key” that, if found, will allow savvy inmates to escape. Damon says the harder part is staying free. The escapee needs to figure out the police force’s plans to catch them. Damon says Pittsburgh is tough because of all its bridges. He estimates that the city center will be sealed in 15 minutes, and more distant roadblocks will be set up within 35 minutes. If the escapee isn’t out of range by then, they’ll get caught. Once out, they need to find a destination that simply ignores the U.S. They also need fake papers that are good enough to clear airport security. John pays Damon for the information, then listens to the tape recording frantically as he tries to assemble a plan.

John surveils the jail, both on the outside and inside. He starts to notice things — sloppy construction workers, frequently deliveries from civilians — and creates a wall in his bedroom loaded with information. He visits Lara when she’s transferred back to the jail. A doctor explains that she’s refusing her insulin injections (she’s diabetic), which the doctor chalks up to another form of suicide. Without giving anything away, John tells Lara it’s important that she stay alive. John puts the house on the market. Using Photoshop, John crops a photo of Lara to use as her fake passport photo. He finds a shady helicopter pilot on Craigslist who helps John take overhead photos of the prison. John examines the photos and finds a door on the roof, which he marks as the “key.” After visiting his parents one night, John approaches a drug dealer, MOUSS. John buys some drugs he’s not interested in, then asks Mouss about buying passports. Mouss tells him to go to a particular bar and ask for “Harv.” He does as he’s told. Harv leads John out to an alley, takes John’s $1500, and then Mouss and a few other thugs appear. They beat the hell out of John.

The next morning, John’s realtor brings a couple by to check out the house. She’s horrified by his bruised condition. John drops Luke off at his parents’ house and wanders the neighborhood looking for anyone selling fake papers. Eventually he’s led to MIKE, a thuggish biker. John’s too afraid to speak to him. Another night, Mike shows up at John’s house. He speaks strangely, making John uneasy. Angrily, Mike announces that he’s deaf, so stop looking at him funny. John tells Mike what he needs. Mike tells him it’ll cost $3700, with $1000 upfront. John gripes that that’s too much — his finances are dwindling and he hasn’t yet sold the house — but Mike won’t budge. John hands over photos and $1000. Mike tells him where and when to meet and tells John if he’s not there on time, John should leave. Another day, John buys a handgun from a stranger. John’s growing weary, until his realtor calls to announce the couple who looked at the house put in an offer. John’s suddenly elated.

John watches a YouTube video about making a “bump key” to unlock any door. John makes a “bump key” out of one of his old keys and tests it in the door to his house — it works. John visits Lara with a notary to get her to sign all the papers to sell the house. John notices the elevators at his school are the same as the ones in the prison. He steals an elevator key from a janitor and files it down to make a bump key. John’s neighbor, PAULA, asks him to water he plants while she goes into the hospital. She gripes that her idiot doctor misdiagnosed her, so she needs an operation. The doctor blames the lab; the lab blames the doctor. She’s clearly frustrated. John goes to meet Mike, but he doesn’t show up. John waits for nearly an hour until Mike shows up, yelling at John for not leaving, pointing out that a cop had been sitting across the street the entire time. Mike takes John’s money and gives him the documents.

John sneaks his bump key through the prison metal detector. He slides it into the elevator key, but it won’t turn — and then it gets stuck. John’s forced to snap off the key and quickly rejoin the visitor group. A guard tries to stick his key in the elevator, but nothing happens. After reviewing CCTV footage, a police major suspects John was the one tampering with the elevator. The footage is fuzzy and indistinct, so John denies it successfully. On his way out of the prison, John passes Quinn and Collero, the detectives who arrested Lara. It’s an awkward moment. Devastated at the failure of his plan, John tries to figure out what to do next. While watching John play at the park, a single mother, NICOLE, flirts with John and invites Luke to her daughter’s upcoming birthday party. John and Luke water Paula’s plants. Luke asks John all about where Paula is and why, and it gives John an idea. He looks at an old bottle of insulin to figure out the warning signs. He looks at his wall of photos and finds the day and time that the medical van arrives with, among other things, test results. John waits, follows the van back to the medical lab, sneaks in, and steals Lara’s test result forms. He uses Photoshop to make the form appear blank, then fills out outrageous numbers to make Lara appear ill. John visits Lara and discovers, now that the appeals are exhausted, they’re transferring her to a real prison in three days. John freaks out — his plans will be ruined.

John talks to the realtor, desperate to see some money from the house quickly. Nothing has cleared yet, so he can’t get a thing. John visits Lara, telling her he tried to convince people not to move her, that she’d be too far for John and Luke to visit frequently. It fell on deaf ears. In a foul mood, Lara snaps that she did kill her boss, so there’s no point in continuing the charade that she deserves any visitations. John leaves the prison in a daze. That night, John drops Luke at his parents’ house and roams the neighborhood. He finds the flashy car he saw earlier, the one picking up wads of cash from cornerboys. He follows the car to a rough neighborhood. He follows the driver, DAVID, down an alley, watches as David knocks on the door of a house, exchanges packages for cash, and leaves. John continues to watch the house…and falls asleep.

John’s awakened by the noise of David banging on the door again. A bright porch light turns on, shining on John. Nobody’s looking in John’s direction, though. He lunges up at David, shoving him through the door so the owner of the house, ALEX, can’t slam it on him. John pistol-whips them a few times and starts shooting at the floor to keep them quiet. He wants their money. Noticing John won’t actually shoot them, Alex toughens up. He knows John won’t do anything. He’s wrong, though: John shoots him in the leg, dumps tequila all over Alex, and lights a rag. The house bursts into flames. Alex is shocked — the house is a meth lab, meaning it’ll likely explode, and Alex claims he has a kid upstairs. Suddenly horrified by what he’s done, John rushes upstairs to find the kid. He finds nothing but another gunman. John uses David as a human shield, getting him killed in the process (and John gets clipped). There’s no kid, but John finds a trash bag full of cash. He grabs it and flees the house.

John speeds away from the scene in his Prius, smashing a taillight in the process. LT. NABULSI and SGT. HARRIS arrive on the scene. Both are shocked that the house didn’t erupt in a fireball because of the meth lab. Forensics have mostly processed the scene. They know somebody left through the back, bleeding. They find the broken taillight pieces, which will be processed by their lab. John patches his bullet wound and returns to his parents’ house. He’s surprised to find George is still up. It’s the middle of the night. John wants to pick up Luke, but John can’t wake him up. He collapses next to Luke, and before he knows it, it’s 5 a.m. Meanwhile, George sneaks into John’s bag and finds the fake passports and plane tickets. In the morning, John says his goodbyes. George knows there’s more finality to it than Grace or Luke does. John notices the contents of his bag have shifted — he realizes George has been through them.

John takes Luke back home. They frantically pack whatever will fit into a few small bags. John takes Luke to the lab, breaks into the van again, and deposits the faked test results for Lara. Harris and Nabulsi discover the taillight matches a Prius. They’re surprised by the choice of car for such a ruthless criminal. They search for felons in the area who own Priuses. Most of them are white collar criminals, but there’s a rapist and murderer among them. Nabulsi tells Harirs to start with the murderer, until he finds out “she’s” in prison for life. Harris runs down the rapist and discovers he’s wheelchair-bound. Nabulsi ruminates on the murderer, wondering if she has a husband or child old enough to drive. John drops Luke off at Nicole’s for the birthday party. He gives her his parents’ phone number in case he’s not back on time. Doctors at the jail’s infirmary get the results of Lara’s bloodwork and are shocked. They call the lab, but John cut their phone lines. With no other option, they get an ambulance and rush Lara to the emergency room.

John waits outside the jail until he’s sure they’re taking Lara to the hospital. Then he speeds past them and sets up his plan there. He writes a “15” and “35” on his wrist, next to his watch, to signify the two time barriers he needs to beat. Nabulsi is shocked to learn Lara’s being transferred to the hospital right now. He knows something fishy is happening. He and Harris speed to the hospital. Dressed as a doctor, John sneaks into Lara’s room, where he holds the guards and gunpoint and forces Lara to put on a lab coat of her own. Lara doesn’t want to leave with him until John announces that Luke is waiting. He drags Lara away. They manage to elude police and get out of the hospital, driving a rented SUV instead of the Prius. John speeds out of the downtown area rapidly. He erases the 15 from his wrist. John apologizes to Lara for lying about Luke waiting for them. They speed to Nicole’s house, only to discover the party’s at the zoo, not the house. This means they have to go back through the city. John blasts through as quickly as possible, but his 35-minute window is up just short of the zoo. He gets off at a different exit because they now have to get away. John tries to calm Lara by pointing out that his parents will take care of Luke until John finds a way to bring him to them. Livid, Lara tries to jump out of the moving car. John swerves to stop her. The car spins out and somehow arrives at a dead stop on the shoulder, facing the correct direction, without damage.

Now that it’s officially too late, John and Lara go to the zoo to pick up Luke. They get back on the tollway, which is jammed because of the roadblocks. Nabulsi and Harris bring Quinn and Collero to pore over forensic evidence found at John’s house. They know he’s planning to leave, but they need to figure out where. He has Harris start calling police departments in five surrounding states to put out an alert. John stops at the train station and picks up an elderly couple on their way to Buffalo. He agrees to drive them to Buffalo, as long as they help to get the family through the roadblock. They drop the couple off in Buffalo and continue on into Ontario, headed for the Toronto airport. Nabulsi notices a Canadian quarter among John’s possessions and realizes they might be headed there. They call all the Ontario and Quebec airports to alert them. Harris goes through all the tourist destinations and realizes one — Port-au-Prince, flying out of Toronto — matches a torn photo they found in John’s house. They tell the Toronto airport to stop anyone matching the family’s description boarding for Port-au-Prince. John intentionally misled them. He takes his family to Caracas, Venezuela. Quinn and Collero reinvestigate the original crime scene. It’s raining. Quinn realizes it was raining when the original crime took place. He sees where the water drains, searches, and finds a telltale button that proves Lara did not commit the crime. Together again, John and Lara make love. The next morning, he’s surprised to find a CNN International broadcast. They won’t be able to hide.

Comments:

The Next Three Days attempts to craft a thriller around the idea of an ordinary man forcing himself to become a master criminal in order to save his family. Although the third-act prison escape is compelling and frequently clever, the script has enough story problems and character inconsistencies to prevent it from living up to its excellent concept. As written, it merits a consider.

The script’s terrific first act does a great job of establishing the premise and the stakes: after Lara is wrongfully convicted of murder, her appeal gets rejected, she attempts suicide, and John feels compelled to take action before Lara tries anything more foolish. In these early scenes, the writer makes it very clear that John is a regular guy, not inclined to criminal activity, who makes some poor but justified decisions out of a desire to keep his wife safe.

It’s the second act where things start to get narratively shaky. Although it’s interesting and sporadically amusing to watch John figure out how to be a criminal using library books and YouTube videos, he becomes hardened much too quickly, which contradicts the idea that he gradually allows himself to do worse and worse things in the alleged name of freeing an innocent woman.

Lara’s reveal that she’s actually guilty puts a different spin on everything, but aside from a brief scene showing John’s shock, he simply gets back on the horse and continues to figure out an escape plan. This is when it becomes evident that John’s reason for breaking his wife out are unclear: is it because he wants to help her, as it’s originally portrayed, or does he feel Luke needs a mother, or does he feel Lara really is innocent despite her vicious, believable confession? The writer never makes this clear, which becomes a nagging distraction throughout the rest of the story. Rather than using this moment to allow John to really examine the moral and ethical implications of the plan he’s set in motion — which is something he never does, despite his initial portrayal as a regular guy who, one assumes, would feel some guilt or fear about the things he does — it almost seems like the writer uses it to allow John to justify murdering drug dealers and stealing their money, an off-putting sequence that makes John seem more sociopathic than sympathetic.

Everything builds to the climactic escape sequence, which contains an even mix of cleverness (John getting Lara transferred to the easier-to-escape-from hospital) and clichés (John misleading the cops into thinking they’re getting off on one floor so they can get off on another one that’s cop-free). Despite the clichés, the escape is reasonably satisfying. Having the detectives go back to the scene of Lara’s alleged crime and proving her innocence to themselves — and the audience — is a ridiculous, unearned moment that exists, one assumes, to make audiences feel better about John breaking a murderer out of jail.

John’s character inconsistencies seem to come more from story choices than anything else. After the “regular guy” introduction, the writer starts to keep John closed off from the audience, allowing them to see only his drive to help Lara. This is an easy way to avoid having to deal with the questions about why John does certain things or what he’s thinking, but the easy road is hackneyed and frustrating more than entertaining. Aside from Lara’s startling — and untrue — confession, she and Luke are generically good people who exist solely to justify John in his actions. After all, he only does what he does to protect his wonderful family. The supporting characters are similarly underwritten. Lowlives enter and leave the story without much depth, the cops who pursue John exist to add an additional layer of suspense in the third act, John’s family doesn’t so much reflect his roots as give John a place to dump off Luke when he’s not useful to the story. With the exception of Mike, the deaf biker, none of them have any spark or personality.

The Next Three Days has a great premise, but the execution is troubled. It’s possible that exceptional acting can give these characters the depth that doesn’t exist on the page, which will make the plot easier to digest.

Posted by D. B. Bates on November 5, 2009 10:06 AM