The Next Three Days

A few weeks ago, “Conviction” told us the true story of a woman who goes to law school and becomes an attorney just so she can defend her brother, who’s in prison for a murder she believes he didn’t commit. “The Next Three Days” begins in a similar manner, then goes off in other directions. Part of the satisfaction in watching it comes from not knowing where it’s going to go.

We’re not even entirely sure what genre it belongs to. We pass very quickly through the preliminaries: wife, mother, and businesswoman Lara Brennan (Elizabeth Banks) is convicted of murdering her boss; her husband, John (Russell Crowe), a community-college English teacher, now struggles through life without her. Will this be a somber drama about loss? A “find-the-real-killer” mystery? A prison-break caper? Something else? At various times the movie feels like it could be heading down any of those paths, and the haunting uncertainty adds to the suspense.

(This is a remake of a 2008 French film, by the way, called “Pour elle,” or “Anything for Her” in the English-speaking world. If you’ve seen it, you know what “The Next Three Days” is up to. But American viewers probably haven’t seen it, as it never played theatrically here.)

John is a quiet, tenderhearted man, wholly devoted to Lara even after she’s been in the big house for three years. It’s a good role for Russell Crowe, who’s adept at softness and sympathy when he’s not crammed into a meathead movie like “Robin Hood.” John and Lara’s son, Luke (Ty Simpkins), is 6 years old and barely feels a connection to his mother anymore, even though John takes him for regular visits. Lara’s despair — quite touchingly conveyed by the usually comedic Elizabeth Banks — is poignant.

With all their legal appeals exhausted, John wonders what else he can do to free his wife. He looks into the idea of breaking her out and fleeing the country. But John is not an action hero, nor is he cut out for a life of crime. When he’s caught trying to pull off a small, tentative step toward the possibility of planning a prison break, his reaction is to vomit.

From there the film is largely procedural: what is John going to do, and how, specifically, is he going to do it? He does a lot of skulking, spying, and observing. There is a useful deaf guy who reads lips, some highly educational YouTube videos, and a forthright criminal (Liam Neeson) who knows how to break out of jails. Writer-director Paul Haggis (“Crash,” “Million Dollar Baby”) keeps us intrigued by showing us every detail — by making us co-conspirators, almost. As John becomes more single-minded in his commitment to do whatever it takes, he becomes able to do more than he’d have thought possible.

More than we’d have thought possible, too: I’m not sure I buy that this man has gotten to the point, psychologically, where he can plausibly do everything he does. Frequently I was gobsmacked by how crazy the plot had gotten — mostly in a thrilling and surprising way, but occasionally in an “Oh, come on, really?” way.

But no matter how outlandish things get, Haggis keeps an air of realism about it. There are no histrionics or Oscar-bait speeches. As a result, there’s a constant feeling of sadness underneath it: A woman has been wrongfully convicted, and her husband and son are suffering. What makes great fodder for detective stories is inexpressibly heartbreaking when you think about in real terms. And Haggis keeps making us think about it in real terms — so much so that we feel like the bottom could drop out at any minute and everything could go terribly, terribly wrong. The suspense isn’t just dramatic. It’s emotional.

B (2 hrs., 2 min.; PG-13, one F-word, moderate other profanity, mild violence and intense themes.)