Film Review – Conviction (Second Take)
Directed by Tony Goldwyn, the new movie Conviction tells the true life story of Betty Anne Waters, played by Hillary Swank. Growing up in Ayer, Massachusetts with her older brother Kenny (played by the wonderful Sam Rockwell), they would escape from life with their neglectful mother, often by getting into various minor incidents with the police. However, in 1983, Kenny was arrested for a murder he didn’t commit, though Betty Anne seems to be the only one who believes in his innocence. Through sheer determination, this High School dropout spent the next 18 years getting her G.E.D., putting herself through College and law school, and passing the bar exam in 2 states just so she could become her brother’s defense attorney.
The best aspect of this film is the lack of histrionics and melodrama while depicting this story. In the usual courtroom drama, there are many larger than life courtroom speeches. In the courthouse, there could’ve been some sort of Terms of Endearment “Help My Daughter!!” kind of moments to heighten the drama. Often, those beats in a movie feel artificial. To director Goldwyn’s credit, his movie avoids those cliches by telling these real life events without all of that artifice.
One of the best examples of this is the depiction of the dissolution of Betty Anne’s marriage. Her husband (played by Loren Dean), only has one brief moment of frustration with her on screen. He gets irate when she ignores her kids for something Kenny needs in his court battle, and storms out of the room. But that was all we needed to see as an audience to understand why they end up divorced years later. We get that her husband and sons needed attention from her too, and we don’t need a bunch of tired depictions stating that for us. Kudos to the movie for letting us do some of that work.
It is that economy of storytelling that plays best throughout the picture.
At times the film feels a little too straight forward and redundant. There are maybe one too many scenes of Betty Anne visiting Kenny in prison. They start to feel a little too similar. Also, sometimes the over used Massachusetts setting with actors using their full on Boston accents can feel a little tired. We’ve seen so many movies in this setting that it starts to feel a little like watching an acting class instead of a genuine film.
What gets it over these hurdles is some solid acting. The biggest standout is Sam Rockwell. He has been building and impressive resume of memorable characters over the last few years. And here he steals the show as a guy who is at one moment clownish, and the next moment apologetic. At one point during this long ordeal Kenny gets suicidal just trying to hold on in prison. Rockwell portrays these with world weary eyes and downcast energy that is far more affecting than over the top emoting would be.
Swank as Betty Anne feels real. While this isn’t anywhere near her first time playing someone from real life, she makes Ms. Waters’ struggle relatable and genuine. Minnie Driver as her best friend shows up mostly for comic relief, but her energy is a welcome contrast to all the seriousness onscreen. Other standouts include Peter Gallagher as Barry Scheck who heads the Innocence Project (a law firm that helps wrongly accused prisoners), Melissa Leo as the career minded cop who arrests Kenny, and Juliette Lewis as Kenny’s former girlfriend who provided the prosecution with particularly damning testimony.
Conviction is well worth seeing for the performances. And while not necessarily groundbreaking, it is a truly inspiring story, told in a believable way.
Final Grade: B