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On DVD: “The Next Three Days” is a Better Movie About Free Will Than “The Adjustment Bureau”

On DVD: "The Next Three Days" is a Better Movie About Free Will Than "The Adjustment Bureau"

Chance happens all the time. After asking my Twitter followers which theatrically under-performing, new-to-DVD film to rent this week, I was all set to give “Morning Glory” a go. But I couldn’t get a copy of it quick enough, so I tried “The Next Three Days” instead. And I’m glad, because I did in fact enjoy it — all 134 minutes of it. I guess it helps that I was simultaneously plotting out my next ten days (scheduling Miami Film Fest and SXSW plans), which is fine since many who finally see the movie will probably similarly be multitasking. Or otherwise only slightly focusing on it. Don’t worry. This film is slow and long enough, and visually bland enough, to do so without guilt.

But it does have some terrific ideas, which continue to grab your attention even if you’re not giving it your fullest. As is typically the case with writer-director Paul Haggis (here adapting the French film “Pour Elle,” aka “Anything for Her”), it’s the ideas that matter. He’s no realist, as we saw (heard) in the fantastical dialogue of his Best Picture winner, “Crash.” But he’s good at concocting abstract dramatic experiments dealing with hypothetical situations of fate and the manifestation of underlying truths. I haven’t seen the original version of “The Next Three Days” — it’s not available from Netflix of Amazon VOD — so I’m unsure if Haggis added the philosophical element to his remake that left me thinking about chance, particularly in comparison to “The Adjustment Bureau.” Basically, like that new release, “The Next Three Days” is a film about the difficulty of exerting free will, but it’s far more subtle and much less common in its reason for tackling the concept.

The movie is literally about a prison break but this can be read as a metaphor for how exerting free will is to break out of the chaotic prison of everyday life. Unlike the familiar questions of “The Adjustment Bureau” as well as much of Philip K. Dick’s work and general narratives dealing with metaphysics, which tend to treat choice as the opposition to predetermined fate, “The Next Three Days” sees free will as contrary to unplanned and unwanted chaos. Fate and chaos may be aligned by the lack of control we have on them, but fate is also connected more with a religious sense of predetermination (which is why “The Adjustment Bureau” seems Christian in its themes). Chaos is more suited to the way we think about the world lately. Where “The Adjustment Bureau” kind of treats disorder as the fault of man — as in the Dark Ages and the World Wars blamed on our being left to our own will by “the Chairman” and “angels” in the Bureau, “The Next Three Days” sees chaos as something that impedes our choice, because anything can happen to us beyond our control at any moment (tomorrow my plane could be delayed or canceled, for instance, impeding my ability to control my festival coverage).

In the film’s narrative, that lack of control is seen in the way Lara Brennan (Elizabeth Banks) is in the wrong place at the wrong time when her boss is murdered and she ends up convicted of the crime. In this case, the chaos is, in a way, the result of free will. The choices of another person, the murderer, cause a lack of control on another person’s life. And sure, that is a form of determination, though not of the planned kind. We can attempt to choose our paths in life only to the extent that we avoid accidents and chaotic chance, like the horrible circumstance that breaks up a family in Lara’s case. Anyway, it’s difficult to iron out the details of the idea, which is why it’s so fun to ponder. The point is that for John Brennan (Russell Crowe), true control over one’s life means overcoming all these obstacles of chaos in order to be a free man, or woman. Literally, though, it means enough determination to literally break someone out of prison. Ironically, the person imprisoned is not in control of her own fate, because not only is her husband the one doing the planning and execution, she isn’t even told it is going to happen before it happens.

Here is a line from the film, spoken by John, which I don’t see in the copy of the script at hand, so it must be Haggis’ insertion. It’s a scene about twenty minutes in, with the character giving a college lecture on “Don Quixote”:

“We spend a lot of time trying to organize the world. We build clocks and calendars and we try to predict the weather. But what part of our life is truly under our control? What if we choose to exist purely in a reality of our own making?”

Of course, in the very next scene, an escape expert (Liam Neeson) talks about how John needs a lengthy plan that he will figure out way in advance and follow strictly. That sounds like the maps in the Adjustment Bureau’s books, only an individual gets to draw and hold onto his own map. It still kind of contradicts the idea of going against a planned course, even if controllable, but that’s one of the reasons the film still has me pondering. Oh right, but after so long plotting his wife’s escape and family’s flight to freedom, new glitches pop up, due to chaos (but more like other people’s actions rather than, say, a blizzard or something), that further heed the family’s mission. Just as Neeson’s character explains, the escape is easy, but staying free is the hard part, continually requiring a lot of work to keep from either intentional or accidental interference.

That same character (an odd cameo for Neeson, by the way, which recalls the actor’s own recent vehicles) mentions “Papillon,” which primarily is meant for a literal prison-break allusion, but the title of the book/film/prison always makes me think of chance and causation because in general I relate butterflies to the butterfly effect. Am I reading too much into that? Sure. I do this a lot. I couldn’t even help connect this film to “The Adjustment Bureau” through Neeson’s character, whose name is Damon, and actor Matt Damon. Obviously there is no real link there. But it’s still a way of pulling order out of disorder. Like making calendars, or pinpointing the perfect clothes and actions to get one elected (a la Damon’s character in “The Adjustment Bureau,” a man whose political handlers and consultants parallel perfectly to the Bureau itself).

It’s quite possible that I wouldn’t have even read “The Next Three Days” as a film about free will had “The Adjustment Bureau” not been on my mind. As far as I can tell, it’s not something that was recognized back when the film opened in theaters. Regardless, the theme is there and more interesting and complex in Haggis’ film than in the newer, very straightforward and explicit movie. Rent it and see for yourself. Or, if you’ve seen it, retry it. I’m really not sure why critics panned the film so horribly because it’s long, slow, not fun or anything else that in another film, especially one that’s more blatantly existential, would have earned it regards. It explains why the movie didn’t do better at the multiplex, but that’s it.

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