"Conviction" - What Has YOUR Sister Done For You?
(USA, 2010, 107 mins)
There was a time, it’s hard to believe, when DNA testing in criminal cases didn’t exist. Many crimes with ample empirical evidence had to rely on testimony and circumstance in order to convict. Innocent people were put to death, guilty people were set free, and all with the right answers within arms reach.
Thankfully, we no longer live in that era and justice can be rightly served because of this new technology—OJ Simpson and Maury Povich aside. "Conviction" tells the true story of a Massachusetts man, Kenny Waters (Sam Rockwell) who in 1983 was sentenced to life in prison on a dodgy murder charge. The only hard evidence in the trial was that Powers’ blood type matched up with some blood at the scene.
Knowing that her brother was no murderer, Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank) dedicated 18 years of her life to getting her brother released from prison. And as the movie promotions breathlessly exclaim, she went to law school to become a lawyer just so she could set her brother free.
Despite the John Grisham-like premise, this isn’t a legal drama; in fact very little of it is spent in a courtroom. The action is following Betty Anne as she tirelessly pursues every avenue to prove her brother’s innocence. She makes great personal sacrifices during the journey: her husband divorces her, her kids want to move in with her dad, her cooking looks absolutely heinous. But her spirit, like her hair, cannot be shaken.
If all of this sounds like a Lifetime Movie of the Week, well, you’re spot on. Tony Goldwyn who directed the mawkish film, mostly has TV helming under his belt—the press notes mention both "Grey’s Anatomy" and "Private Practice," which seems a little redundant. Minnie Driver in a side role as a law school cohort-cum-sassy best friend only makes the female-quadrant baiting even more glaring.
As the story centers on Betty Anne, the movie is entirely dependent on Swank, who also serves as its executive producer. The single mom fighting for justice is familiar territory for her and she slides back into her "Million Dollar Baby" character with ease. It’s a fine performance, minus a Massachusetts accent that challenges Julianne Moore’s in "30 Rock," although there is a distractingly long stretch where each one of her scenes ends with Betty Anne: 1) screaming 2) bawling 3) stomping out of a room angrily. Fade out.
Sam Rockwell’s Kenny is a dark and funny presence; he is the heart of the story and his own plight in jail matches the trauma that Betty Anne puts herself through. And Melissa Leo shows up just in time to pull out one of her many white-trash monologues, which is her stock-and-trade.
Really though, the film never sets its sights very high so there’s no fun in harping on the shortcomings. It might involve the importance of DNA testing or a corrupt legal system, but never makes any larger ethical points about them. And there’s something to be said about making a modest attempt and trying to tell a true story accurately. The real Betty Anne was no great lawyer– she just wanted the real story to be out there. "Conviction" is true to that spirit.
See Neon Tommy's coverage of the red carpet premiere of "Conviction" here.
Reach reporter Tom Dotan here.