Film Review: Conviction

Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell

How is this for an unlikely story? A working class Massachusetts woman, married with two kids, sees her brother sentenced to life imprisonment for a murder she is sure he did not commit. Despite having once dropped out of college, our heroine virtually abandons her domestic set-up, goes back to school and gains a law degree. She also tracks down the evidence that can prove her sibling’s innocence and exposes local police corruption at the same time. It all sounds pretty incredible. Well, it just happens to be a true story and the basis for the completely gripping and emotionally-charged drama ‘Conviction.’

Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank) did just what I described and it took up eighteen years of her life. Her brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell) was a wild card and no stranger to a police cell. His misdemeanors were minor, yet his rap sheet was just long enough for him to be questioned when a neighbour was found dead in suspicious circumstances. Two years later, thanks to the testimonies of a couple of ex-girlfriends and a crooked local police chief (Melissa Leo), Kenny was found guilty of the crime and faced spending the rest of his existence in prison.

When Kenny cracked under the pressure of life inside, he attempted suicide and his desperate sister vowed that she would help him as long as he promised not to try to take his life again. At the expense of her marriage and custody of her children, Betty Anne returned to school and eventually gained the qualification she needed to present new evidence to the court.  Of course, first she had to find this evidence which brought her into conflict with a generally disinterested and alarmingly backward legal system. Luckily, Betty Anne had not just her feisty friend Abra (Minnie Driver) to help her in her quest but also the arrival of DNA testing and her own relentless determination.

Even if you go into ‘Conviction’ knowing how everything turns out, the film is still an inspiring watch. This is not strictly a crime movie as the film-makers are as convinced of Kenny’s innocence as Betty Anne was, so the matter is never brought into doubt.  This is more a story of the unbreakable bonds between a brother and a sister who were sent to separate foster homes as children and later, as adults, face being parted for life.

The shocking elements in ‘Conviction’ are its revelations about how the legal system operates in some US states. Whole boxes of evidence were destroyed or simply went missing, while unreliable witnesses were coerced into spinning yarns in court which could of cost a man his life.  This seems more like some tin-pot dictatorship then the supposed land of the free. You leave the film fearing for all those other poor souls who were wrongly convicted (other cases have come to light since the film was made) and who might not have such resourceful family members to bail them out.

Betty Anne Waters is a peach of a part, much in the mould of Erin Brockovich, which any actress might sell her designer outfits for. Hilary Swank is a perfect fit but then her most successful roles have seen her playing strong, independent and, generally, kick-ass women such as Amelia Earhart or the fictional Maggie Fitzgerald in ‘Million Dollar Baby’. Meanwhile, Sam Rockwell, with his reputation for playing the more off kilter and out-there roles slips neatly into the skin of the firebrand Kenny Waters.

Far from a physical match for Kenny, Rockwell still captures the essence of a man who is basically good at heart but troubled in his soul. He also disintegrates convincingly over the course of the movie as the misery of prison life pushes Kenny to the edge and turns a good ole boy into a whisper of his former self.

I am surprised that both performers have not been more acknowledged in any of the major award ceremonies so far, especially given Swank’s track record at Oscar time. At least the Screen Actors Guild were kind enough to give her  a best actress nomination.  Perhaps the fact that there are several really good performances in ‘Conviction’ (including Driver, Leo and Juliette Lewis putting her rock career on hold to play one of Kenny’s vengeful exes) split the vote. ‘Conviction’ is the sort of film that Oscar voters normally love as it waves its crusading banner high with good intentions while also being a powerful story of love triumphing over adversity and ignorance. Ironically, ‘Conviction’ may have been the victim of injustice itself as far as accolades go.

Director: Tony Goldwyn
Starring: Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Minnie Driver,Thomas D Mahard
Run Time: 1hr 45mins

About Alan Diment

Is a freelance writer and film critic. A total film buff who lives and breathes movies.

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