Conviction tells the story of a woman’s nearly 18 year struggle to spring her brother from jail. She accomplished this not through an elaborate escape plot, but by enduring the day-to-day grind of getting several degrees, a license to practice law, and the case re-opened all while raising a family. Along the way she loses a husband and (were this not a Hollywood film) some hair pigment from stress, but she ultimately accomplishes the feat with the help of newly discovered DNA techniques and a non-profit group dedicated to freeing wrongly-convicted inmates. It would be a sort of legal Don Quixote story, if we ever for a moment doubted Kenny’s innocence or Betty Anne’s resolve.
Of course she accomplishes the goal, because this is a true story and would not have otherwise been remarkable enough to draw the attention of the storytellers. What a film like this –which not for one single frame ever stains your confidence of a positive ending with genuine doubt– the meat is found in tour de force performances, fine craft, and engaging storytelling. With a few mis-steps Conviction possesses most of these things- the acting is excellent, and the filmmaking sure of itself, without ever emerging as much more than the sum of its parts.
The good is often very good. First of all, Sam Rockwell’s thorough performance is the kind of high-level acting we expect from him these days, as the often-incarcerated Kenny Waters. While the film always treads on the lighter side of his delinquency, we still get the impression that Kenny is ultimately a womanizing, law-breaking piece of shit. In a more interesting version of the film, maybe Rockwell could have brought legitimate darkness to the character that would have let us think he was genuinely capable of murder, but he’s still doing great work. Rockwell brings his unmatched skill to aging and weathering Kenny during his long stint in prison, assisted by some excellent make-up, subtly packing on the years (as opposed to Swank, whose face never ages a day). Kenny feels like a caged creature whose spirit drops as time goes on, though the flashes of excitement and hope let Rockwell bring out that core energy every so often.
Swank is extremely confident as Betty Anne, managing the Massachusetts accent and trashy upbringing with complete skill. While it’s not reflected in her appearance as blatantly as it is on Rockwell, Swank brings a decidedly different posture to each stage of Betty Anne’s life- the forced maturity becomes evident on her face, the great weight of the case evident on her shoulders. Aside from Rockwell she is supported by an excellent cast, primarily Minnie Driver in the thankless supportive friend role, and Melissa Leo as the prickly, possibly evil cop. It would be a mistake not to also mention Juliette Lewis rocking a very small role as a [m/d]entally-challenged nightmare.
The filmmaking is solid, sometimes beautiful. The film opens with promise, as we get a seemingly subjective, floating view of the results of the murder Kenny Waters is later accused of committing. There’s nothing in the rest of the film that lives up to this more interesting stylization though.
What I appreciated most about the film was the handling of the flashbacks to Kenny and Betty Anne’s childhood and are shown (rather than just told) how close these two are, and why. We witness them steal from the local grocer, break into houses, fight with cops, and most importantly, look out for each other. The scenes are a big part of the structure of the first half of the film and once we move beyond them, Conviction loses a lot of the texture that made me so positive on the movie to begin with. Swank and Rockwell do a perfectly good job of keeping up the sibling chemistry, but the film just starts to feel more and more inevitable.
While Conviction never thinks outside the schmaltzy box, I must give the film credit for the way it handles the theme of total dedication to a single, possibly insurmountable cause. Multiple times in the film it’s said that Betty Ann has wasted or “sacrificed” her life. This is met with a slightly baffled look from Betty Ann, who seems to realize if no one else does that she can still practice law past her brother’s case, or that she’s successfully raised two boys, or that she’s educated herself beyond nearly everyone in her small hometown. Thankfully we’re never forced to endure a monologue or grand speech telling us that and instead it remains a nice piece of subtext. It’s one of the few below-the-surface themes.
It’s a shame the rest of the film features so many of the trite, obvious scenes of stress and bureaucracy you would expect. There’s rarely anything bad, but the film never lives up to its central performances with material or an approach that will stick with you. Conviction is the kind of film that wins awards and gets deserved attention for its actors, but it never manages to be as compelling as you suspect the real story probably is.