Starring: Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Minnie Driver
Directed by: Tony Goldwyn (“The Last Kiss”)
Written by: Pamela Gray (“Music of the Heart”)
Rarely do we see a brother and sister relationship like the one we get in “Conviction,” a true story based on the life of Massachusetts resident Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank), who in 1983 began an 18-year mission to help exonerate her brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell) from a wrongful murder conviction.
While the film manages to keep this devoted relationship at the core of the narrative and never skulk into areas of over-sentimentality, the emotional tug-o-war during Betty’s life-long journey is as conventional of a biopic as they come. Without Swank and Rockwell there at the forefront to enhance the script’s more standard choices, the Waters family story might have been better fitted for an updated “60 Minutes” news report.
It takes two years for police to officially arrest Kenny, put him on trial, and ultimately give him a life sentence for the murder of a local woman. Once in prison, Betty makes a deal with her brother after he attempts to take his own life. She promises if he never attempts suicide again she will do everything it takes to become a lawyer and find a way to clear him of the murder charges.
Eighteen years is condensed into nearly two hours as we watch Betty, a high school dropout, start by earning her GED then bachelor’s and eventually make her way into law school. There she meets best friend and voice of reason Abra Rice (Minnie Drive), who stands by Betty and her seemingly impossible goal.
But as most people who know how this story actually ends, Betty, with the help of Innocence Project founder Barry Scheck (Peter Gallagher), is able to find the evidence she needs to prove Kenny’s innocence after she passes the bar exam. Supporting actresses Melissa Leo and Juliette Lewis play adequate antagonists; Leo as a corrupt policewoman with a grudge against Kenny and Lewis as a vindictive witness who lies during her testimony.
Directed by Tony Goldwyn (“The Last Kiss”) from a script by Pamela Gray (“Music of the Heart”), “Conviction” is a timely drama that will spark debate about the justice system and spotlight an organization like the Innocence Project that has since facilitated the release of over 250 wrongfully-accused individuals.
Aside from its good intentions, it’s the combination of Swank and Rockwell that are the saving grace of a film that is simply missing some key uplifting moments. Even with a hopeful ending (a conclusion controlled for Hollywood standards since the real-life story is much more tragic), “Conviction” is only somewhat successful in adapting a story ripped straight from the headlines.