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Conviction Review


RATING:
(3 STARS)

Conviction isn’t a film that’s meant to surprise or challenge you. From the minute the film starts, there’s no doubt how it will conclude. But storytelling this good shouldn’t be written off simply for being predictable and familiar. Like Secretariat and, to a lesser degree, The Blind Side, this film takes advantage of its uplifting nature to draw you in emotionally. And with two solid anchoring performances, as well as an enjoyable supporting cast, there’s not much else you can ask for from a film like this.

The film tells the story of Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank), a woman who spent the majority of her adult life trying to free her brother, Kenny (Sam Rockwell), from prison. In the early 1980s, Kenny is convicted of murder. He insists he didn’t do it, and Betty Anne stands behind him, but the evidence and witnesses are incriminating, and he can’t get a lawyer who gives a damn. Betty Anne’s solution is admittedly far-fetched: Get her GED, a Bachelor’s degree, go to law school, pass the bar, and find a solution in the system that will free her brother. So Kenny waits, and Betty Anne goes to work.

Conviction is, above all else, a story about the love between a brother and sister, and in order to invest us in this relationship, director Tony Goldwyn smartly shows us Kenny and Betty Anne as children. Their lives are rough. Their mother doesn’t pay them any attention. They break into houses for fun. And eventually, Kenny starts amassing a criminal record. But even through his rough patches, Betty Anne is there for him. Their relationship is almost always warm and loving, and while underdog stories are a dime a dozen, a bond as well-written and well-acted as this is not. It’s what keeps us interested in Conviction.

Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell both turn out high-quality work. Fresh off the disappointment that was Amelia, Swank dials down a little on the histrionics and crafts a fragile but credible woman just trying to do her best. Are there moments when her drive seems a bit unrealistic? Sure, but that sort of stuff comes with the territory. Swank hasn’t generated much Oscar buzz, which is a shame. While it might not be on par with her work in Boys Don’t Cry and Million Dollar Baby (the two films that won her Oscars), it’s still quite good.

Rockwell has been generating buzz, I think, because he’s overdue for a nomination and his character is definitely showier than Swank’s. Kenny is as charismatic as they come, even when he reaches some pretty low points. Part of that is because he has a temper and is definitely a scoundrel, but Rockwell imbues him with real humanity. The actor isn’t quite as impressive as he was last year in Moon, but that was career-defining work. This is a notch below, but still very solid.

There’s not a beat skipped by the supporting cast, who all do just what’s expected and needed of them to tell this story the right way. Minnie Driver has an important role as Betty Anne’s best friend and fellow lawyer, Abra Rice. She has some of the film’s funniest lines, but she’s also not afraid to tell Betty Anne the hard truth sometimes. Juliette Lewis plays a former lover of Kenny’s who testifies against him. She’s only in a few scenes, but one extended scene is a chance for the actress to shine, as she digs through years of guilt to come up with a reason for lying in the trial. And Melissa Leo, who’s picking up buzz not for her performance here but in David O. Russell’s The Fighter later this year, plays the officer who arrests Kenny and might have a vendetta against him. It’s a small but crucial role, and Leo does exactly what she needs to.

Much has been made about the decision to leave out any acknowledgement of the bitter irony that Kenny Waters died just weeks after getting released from prison. I think that’s a good decision. While it’s no doubt an interesting factoid, it would leave a bad taste in viewers’ mouths. Screenwriter Pamela Gray doesn’t embellish anything and doesn’t do anything unexpected, which in this case works. The strength of the story is enough, and as odd as this might sound, I think any major risk could have threatened the emotional impact of the story. Even the slightly jumbled chronology, I think is a minor misstep. When you have material this inherently good, it’s usually best to just tell the story, and with the help of two actors at the tops of their game, Gray and Goldwyn are able to do just that.

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