It’s almost a given at this point that any script that has even the slightest chance of getting someone a Best Actress nomination at the Oscars lands on the desk of Hilary Swank first. It’s little wonder she ended up as the star of “Conviction,” the true story of Betty Anne Waters, a woman who spent decades trying to prove that her brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell) was innocent of the murder charges that got him sentenced to life in prison, eventually going to law school so she could represent him as his lawyer. It’s a compelling story, and a significant one in terms of precedent, and I can see why director Tony Goldwyn has been drawn to the story for over a decade. I’m just not sure the end result completely works.
In 2005, I saw and quite liked a documentary called “After Innocence,” a look at Barry Sheck’s Innocence Project, which helped use DNA evidence to free wrongly convicted men from prison. The idea that science reached a point where it was able to start overturning these injustices was quite powerful, and looking at the way the lives of these men were impacted by the work of the Innocence Project was, frankly, inspirational. It’s an impressive movie, and the best moments in “Conviction” tap into that same sense of moral indignation. Barry Sheck actually appears as a character in “Conviction,” played by Peter Gallagher, and that part of the film is some of the most interesting material in it.
Unfortunately, much of the rest of the movie is fairly slow going. We meet Betty and her brother, and we see how Kenny is a bit of a hellraiser, with a bad local reputation. When a violent murder takes place in town, Kenny is immediately suspected of it, and some very circumstantial evidence is enough to convince deputy Nancy Taylor (Melissa Leo in a severely underwritten part) that Kenny is the killer. Like a slow-motion nightmare, Kenny is arrested, tried, and sentenced, and all Betty can do is watch it happen.
There is something moving about the relationship between Betty Anne and Kenny as shown here, especially when they flashback to them as children. They were abandoned by their parents in different ways and they basically had to depend on each other to survive the foster care system. Their bond is incredibly strong, and both Swank and Rockwell do a great job of making you believe that the connection is real. It’s great to see Rockwell playing this sort of role, because it takes all the things that are typically his strengths, and then slowly strips them away from him, forcing him to dig deeper. There are no giant emotional fireworks in the film because Goldwyn’s smart enough to hold back and let the film build some cumulative weight. The film does pack an emotional punch, but a restrained one, and that’s one of the best things about it.
There’s a loooooooooot of shoe leather in the film, though, and if you don’t know the term, it basically refers to the sort of exposition that exists only to get you from one story point to the next, and that’s pretty much all of act two of this film. Betty Anne befriends a woman named Abra Rice (Minnie Driver), and while Driver does her best to keep things lively, and she is definitely appealing, it’s still just miles of exposition. It’s really not until Betty Anne gets out of law school that the film ramps up and gets to the real meat of the story. Screenwriter Pamela Gray (“A Walk On The Moon”) is very good with small character moments, and she’s smart about the way she reveals the inner lives of the characters, but structurally, it’s very unbalanced. Because of that, the film doesn’t completely work. Still, she and Goldwyn are a strong filmmaking team, and I hope they continue to collaborate.
Still, once the film hits the final half-hour or so, it makes all the right moves, and it ends strong. The performances are so consistently strong that it makes the dry patches in the film bearable, and for that reason, I’d say it’s worth seeing. Temper your expectations, shake off the sort of annoying Oscar hype that can hobble even the best films this time of year, and you may find yourself affected by this modest but heartfelt movie.
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