A single mother (Swank) spends nearly two decades putting herself through law school in order to overturn her brother's (Rockwell) unjust murder conviction.
Release Date: 15 October 2010
In 1983, Kenneth Waters (Sam Rockwell) was convicted of the murder of an old woman who lived on the outskirts of tiny Ayers, Massachussets. Kenny was a drunk and a trouble maker and had been his whole life and most people would say Life in Prison was his most likely destination. The only one who wouldn't, in fact, was his younger sister Betty Anne (Hilary Swank). She was so convinced that despite having just gotten married and had a young son, she spent the next 18 years of her life trying to prove Kenny's innocence.
Hollywood loves movies like these and so do indie film makers -- it's heartwarming, trying and still leaves open avenues for exploring the psychology of small town life -- so it's inevitable a story like this was going to be made into a movie eventually. The question is, will it get turned into a good movie.
The problem with any based-on-a-true-story story is film's tendency to sentamentalize in order to create a strong emotional connection with the broadest number of people. In the process it also trvializes that which it is trying to place on a pedestal, usually by fetishizing its main character, turning them into some sort of saint-cum-martyr beset on all sides by the ignorant or small-minded. Which is to say, it turns them into "The Blind Side."
"Conviction" isn't quite that, but it flirts with it more than is really healthy for it. The center of the film is Swank's Betty Anne, who is willing to do just about anything to get her brother out of jail though she is never seldom tested in that regard. That's not entirely fair, she does send herself through college and graduate school, despite the lack of consideration given from her husband or other family members. Of course, the people who refuse to believe in her in that way are for the most part selfish jerks who deserve to be left behind.
It's not as ridiculous as some of its ilk; journeyman actor turned journeyman director Tony Goldwyn ("The Last Kiss") wisely keeps the focus on Betty Anne and her trials and tribulations, and he truly has a gifted actress at work in Swank who is able to portray the psychological toll her long toil has taken on her even as she redoubles her efforts despite little in the screenplay to help her.
Much of the screenplay, in fact, consists of Betty Anne dealing with people who think she's just a little bit obsessed. The problem is the themes of "Conviction" require her to be absolutely unflinching in her duty regardless of how hard the going gets. As the center of drama, it leaves her unchanging in position where doubt is required for actual conflict to emerge. Which means it makes her dull.
And her help is uneven at best. Rockwell is the best thing about the film as the damaged Kenny and the scenes he and Swank share during her regular prison visits are the best in the film. Character actress Melissa Leo also shines, albeit briefly, as the cop out to get Kenny. But many of the other roles, such as Betty Anne's best friend (Minnie Driver) or the various witnesses against kenny (Clea DuVall, Juliett Lewis) are often merely perfunctory.
Which is probably the best way to sum of "Conviction." It's a little too convinced of its own righteousness and often doesn't see any need to convince the rest of us through character doubt or drama. It's not bad, in many spots in fact it's quite good, but it thinks it's better than it is so doesn't see any reason to make it's own case. I remain unconvinced.