Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Tony Goldwyn
Stars: Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Melissa Leo, Minnie Driver, Juliette Lewis, Peter Gallagher, Ari Graynor.
Hilary Swank was obviously on the lookout for more Oscar bait when she chose Conviction as her next film project. Part courtroom drama, part prison film, Conviction is based on a true story of a miscarriage of justice, and tells of another battler fighting against injustices and the complex legal system in the same vein as Erin Brockovich, The Hurricane etc. It showcases the type of strong, tenacious working class character that Swank plays so well, so it’s appeal was obvious. Swank is also credited as one of the executive producers.
Betty Anne Waters was a high school drop out and divorced mother of two who put herself through law school when she embarked on an 18-year quest to find justice for her brother who was wrongly convicted of murdering an elderly lady. The story starts in 1980 with the brutal murder of Katharina Brow in Ayer, Massachusetts. Kenny (Sam Rockwell) was a bit of a local larrikin and a tear away who was always in trouble with the law for drunkenness and fighting, and was immediately the chief suspect. A series of flashbacks shows the tight knit bond between Betty Anne and Kenny, and explains why she was so firm in her belief in his innocence.
Betty Anne initially struggles to cope with the demands of both law school and being a working mother. But when she learns about DNA evidence and how it has been used to free wrongly convicted prisoners, her struggle to free Kenny takes on a new urgency. This earnest film also examines the flawed American legal system, and the frustration and legal delays faced when dealing with the bureaucracy while trying to overturn a conviction.
Actor turned director Tony Goldwyn (The Last Kiss, etc) has directed a lot of television series, and unfortunately he gives Conviction the bland, earnest feel of a telemovie. His pacing is a little pedestrian and he misjudges the mood of some of the key emotional moments. The script from Pamela Gray (who also wrote A Walk On The Moon for Goldwyn) only scratches the surface of Betty Anne’s story, but still it feels crowded with too many subplots and incidents as it spans two decades. Even though the film is based on a true story, some events – such the missing evidence turning up – require a healthy suspension of disbelief.
Goldwyn has assembled a stellar ensemble cast, who all deliver solid performances. As usual Swank is excellent and brings her usual feisty spirit and sense of determination to her performance. Rockwell brings his usual twitchy and nervous energy to his performance. Even though Kenny is not particularly likeable, Rockwell’s performance makes him sympathetic, and he adds some unexpected depth to his character as we watch his mental deterioration whilst in prison. Swank and Rockwell quickly develop an easy rapport that makes their relationship credible and touching.
There is also solid support from Minnie Driver, in her best role for some time, and she adds some comic relief as Abra, Betty Anne’s friend and colleague. Juliette Lewis is excellent as a white trash waitress and meth addict whose testimony helps convict Kenny. Melissa Leo (who is so good with her scenery chewing turn in The Fighter) makes the most of her small and one-dimensional role as the corrupt small town cop who has a grudge against Kenny and is largely responsible for sending him to prison. Peter Gallagher is also good as Barry Scheck, the head of the Innocence Project, a New York-based organisation that helps free prisoners by using DNA evidence to overturn their convictions. Ari Graynor is touching as Kenny’s daughter, who wants nothing to do with him.
And as happens so often now with these true stories, we get to see a picture of the real Betty Anne and Kenny at the end. The real Kenny apparently died only six months after being released from prison, a fact that adds a sad footnote to the drama.