Film Review – Conviction
The title of director Tony Goldwyn’s Conviction (2010) really works on two different fronts. The first about the wrongful conviction and imprisonment of a man who fit the mold of a brutal killer, but swears it wasn’t him. It also works as the representation of a woman who would simply not stop in her quest to prove her brother’s innocence. Her unrelenting determination in the faces of her detractors, both professional and personal, goes to show that hard work, the strength of willpower, and the bond between family can truly overcome any obstacle. Does this sound a little heavy handed to you? Maybe it is, but let’s move on.
The plot involves a famous criminal case involving Kenny Waters (Sam Rockwell) who was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for first-degree murder. As he sits anxiously in jail, his sister Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank) works diligently to find a way to set him free. They have no money to afford a proper lawyer, and everyone she knows, including her family and friends, feel that there is nothing they can do. Regardless of whether or not Kenny is innocent, the court has made their ruling, years have passed with no changes, and it is time for them to move on. For Betty Anne, there is no “moving on.” With no support or resources, what does Betty Anne decide to do? Go to law school, become a lawyer, and work as Kenny’s representation herself.
Now, this courtroom drama contains every single trope and cliché that you would find in every other film like it out there. You have the inexperienced and fresh-faced underdog lawyer, taking on a case that may be too big for her britches. There’s the trial case that consumes her life, so much so that she neglects her family, creating tension between herself, her kids, and her husband. Don’t forget the imprisoned criminal, who has a heart of gold but is rough around the edges and has had a history with the law. Apparently, whenever there’s a crime that happens in this small Massachusetts town, he’s one of the usual go-to suspects. And of course, there’s the surprise witness, who provides key information that may or may not be the deciding factor to everything. Add a lot of tears, a “based on a true story” title in the beginning, just a pinch of melodramatic music, and you have routine courtroom drama just like how mama used to make it.
So when you have a film that employs elements that you’ve seen a countless number of times, there are other things you tend to focus on. In this film, that would be the acting. Hilary Swank plays Betty Anne Waters with all the strength and will power to make it believable that she would continue working on this case for almost two decades. I’m not a language expert, but something tells me that the Massachusetts accent she has may not be the most accurate, but it didn’t really take away from her performance. Whenever anyone tries to bring her down or prevent her from getting what she needs, Betty Anne simply refuses to let that happen. When someone doesn’t respond to a letter, Betty Anne will call them. When someone doesn’t pick up the phone, Betty Anne will visit their door. When someone doesn’t answer her knock, Betty Anne will continue knocking until they do. Betty Anne and Kenny may very well be the strongest brother and sister duo in the history of brother and sister duos. The film shows them as best friends both as kids and adults, even their spouses take a back seat to their relationship. It’s their world, everyone else is just a guest.
Minnie Driver plays Abra Rice, a friend who Betty Anne met in law school and became one of her colleagues helping to investigate the case. She is quick, funny, and spunky. Driver has never really been on my radar as an actress, but here she proves she can keep up with a two time Oscar winner, even stealing some scenes. Unfortunately, her character is relatively flat, and literally disappears during the third act. Hopefully with this performance she will score some meatier roles. Juliette Lewis leaves a lasting impression as Roseanna Perry, a former lover of Kenny and a key witness to the case. She only has two scenes in the entire film, barely lasting any more than ten minutes on screen, but her character is so memorable that her performance is one to remember. In the scene at her home, Lewis displays a host of emotions: from hostility, to anger, to sadness, and back around again. This is a very tricky thing to do in such a short amount of time, but Lewis does it with flying colors.
If there is one thing to take away from this film, one thing to tell people to go and see it for, it would be Sam Rockwell. Rockwell is a very good actor, he has always been a very good actor. Here is a performance that should win him a supporting Oscar nomination, playing the convicted prisoner. Rockwell plays Kenny with a whole range of levels, from the unpredictable and temperamental criminal, to the scared and worrisome brother, from depression to rage to hope to gratitude and despair, there is not a place here that Rockwell isn’t afraid to go. Kenny is a man trying to find hope in the most hopeless of places, and Rockwell shows this easily. Even physically, Rockwell disappears in to character. In the beginning of the film, he’s the same person we’ve recognized in other movies, but as the years pass, we see the lines grow on his face, his physic seemingly growing in size, the years of life in prison taking its toll on him. At the end of the film, he is a completely different person. Look at the scene where he meets face to face with a family member he hasn’t seen since he went to prison, this alone should give him the critical recognition he so rightly deserves.
It’s too bad that Rockwell’s performance is within a story we’ve seen many times before, from The Verdict (1982) to The Hurricane (1999). This is based off the true story of the Waters family, and when we are introduced to the key evidence of the case, we know how the dominoes will fall, and we wait for the inevitable out come to unfold. If Goldwyn, along with his writer Pamela Gray, could have made some sort of twist to the story, added some sort of surprise that we weren’t expecting, then the film really could have been one of a kind. Perhaps, since it IS a true story, they kept it the way it is out of respect for the real people involved, and I can respect that. Besides, above all else, it’s the emotion of the film that truly keeps it afloat, as we watch with fascination the unwavering relentlessness of Betty Anne, determined to free her bad boy brother.
Final Grade: B