Conviction (Fox Searchlight Pictures, R)

There’s nothing particularly original in either the film’s plot or its technique, but the execution of all the expected elements is so good that everything works exactly as intended.

 

 

Conviction, directed by Tony Goldwyn and starring Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell, offers proof that it’s still possible to make an old-fashioned, Hollywood-style melodrama. The movie has an absorbing story, strong roles for both men and women and good doses of both social commentary and emotional uplift. There’s nothing particularly original in either the film’s plot or its technique, but the execution of all the expected elements is so good that everything works exactly as intended.

 

Conviction is based on the true story of Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank), a working-class mother whose brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell) was convicted in 1983 of a murder committed three years earlier in the small town of Ayer, Massachusetts. It was a horrific crime and the local police department wanted to pin a conviction on someone. Kenny, who had already had his share of brushes with the law, was their chosen scapegoat.

 

Unwilling to accept this miscarriage of justice, Betty Anne, who at this point has not even graduated from high school, decides to become a lawyer so she can win her brother’s release from prison. She makes it through the long journey—GED, BA, and JD—while raising two children and working at various jobs. She also forms a fast friendship with the indomitable Abra Rice (Minnie Driver) and discovers a new legal tool that she believes can prove her brother’s innocence: DNA testing. Finally, she enlists the assistance of Barry Scheck (Peter Gallagher) and the Innocence Project and, as they say, the rest is history.

 

Pamela Gray’s script jumps backwards and forwards in time, establishing the childhood bond of two kids (Betty Anne and Kenny are played as children by Bailee Madison and Tobias Campbell) from the wrong side of the tracks. Their mother, who had nine children by seven different men, was frequently unwilling or unable to care for them. The kids were regularly in and out of foster homes and got into their share of low-level juvenile delinquency (stealing candy, breaking into people’s houses so, as Betty Anne puts it, they could pretend they lived there). For all that, both might have had uneventful journeys through life were it not for an overzealous police officer named Nancy Taylor (Melissa Leo). Taylor seems to have been the Massachusetts equivalent of Joe Arpaio in her zeal to achieve a conviction, no matter what the facts.

 

Many wrongs occur during the story of Conviction, but the film doesn’t judge its characters harshly. Instead it portrays most of them as caught up in a web of poverty and abuse that limits their choices. Juliette Lewis and Clea DuVall are excellent in small roles as former girlfriends who testified against Kenny. As they tell their stories it becomes clear that they were not malicious but rather victims abused by the legal system. Leo’s character is the closest thing in the film to pure evil, but Goldwyn doesn’t harp on the issue, treating her instead as the last and greatest barrier Betty Anne must surmount (the catchphrase for this film is “people don’t like to admit they’ve been wrong”) in her quest for justice.

 

On the other hand, the film doesn’t portray its characters as flawless heroes. Swank’s character is powered by unshakeable determination more than any particular talent for the law, and she can be intolerant of anyone who doesn’t share in her unquestioning belief. Her marriage falls by the wayside as she pursues her quest, and it nearly ends her relationship with Abra—her best friend in the world—as well. Kenny is no plaster saint, just an average guy with more than his share of flaws, including an alarmingly short temper that regularly gets him into trouble.

 

Because Conviction is based on a true story you go in to the film already knowing its outcome. Even if you don’t know the story of Betty Anne and Kenny Waters, a superficial knowledge of film conventions should give you a good clue as to how the movie ends. Of course, you could say the same thing about Apollo 13. Despite this predetermined ending, the film manages to tap strong emotions and produce a satisfying emotional experience, which only goes to prove that there’s nothing wrong with the old formulas if you know how to execute them well. | Sarah Boslaugh

 

 

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