In "Conviction," based on real events, Hilary Swank plays Betty Anne Waters, a working-class Massachusetts high school drop-out whose short-fused older brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell) is given a life sentence in 1983 for a murder he says he did not commit. Over the next two decades, Betty Anne completes high school and college, then makes it through law school – all for the sole purpose of representing Kenny in court and winning him his freedom.
Why didn't Betty Anne use her tuition money to hire a lawyer? Since this is a true story, the obvious answer – because if she had, there wouldn't be a movie – does not apply. But the film, directed by Tony Goldwyn and written by Pamela Gray, never quite confronts its own implausibilities. We are often placed in the strange position of believing that this true story is too movie-ish for its own good.
Perhaps a more imaginative director would have shaken up this film's based-on-a-true-story inspirationalism. As intelligent and well-acted as it often is, it also seems generic – yet another entry in the "Erin Brockovich" Oscar category sweepstakes.
We don't need the repeated flashbacks of Betty Anne and Kenny romping as kids – their closeness as adults already says it all. We could also use more courtroom scenes. When Innocence Project lawyer Barry Scheck (Peter Gallagher) takes up Kenny's cause based on newfound DNA evidence, he might as well be perched atop a white horse.
What makes "Conviction" worth seeing is its depiction of a self-immolating crusader. Betty Anne devotes her life to her brother's redemption. She sacrifices her marriage, loses out on her two children, and has not a single regret.
Goldwyn may at times try to turn Betty Anne into a species of saint, but Swank, in her more hard-bitten moments, knows better. Without the leavening of Betty Anne's good-time best friend Abra (wonderfully played by Minnie Driver), "Conviction" would be a grim slog indeed.
In the past I've never been a big fan of Sam Rockwell – he's all mannerism. But he gives his best performance in "Conviction." He doesn't play for our sympathy or turn Kenny into a closet nice guy, which would have been easy. Kenny, even after he is judged innocent, remains a enigma and this is as it should be.
There is one aspect of "Conviction" that is a real cheat. No mention is made that Kenny, six months after his release from prison, accidentally fell and fatally fractured his skull. Did the filmmakers think that our knowing this would wreck a happy ending? For a film that prides itself on its realism, this omission is unspeakably wimpy. Grade: B (Rated R for language and some violent images.)
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