The title “Conviction” has a dual meaning. It reflects the prison sentence given to a real-life murder suspect in 1983, and it reflects the dedication of his sister in working to overturn his sentencing and get him out.
It sounds like the type of story you see in a TV movie, focusing on “One Woman’s Struggle” to save her brother and keep her family intact. The true story could certainly have been turned into a movie-of-the-week type project, but the performances in Conviction elevate it to a more prestigious level.
The “One Woman” is Betty Anne Waters, played by Hillary Swank. Betty Anne and her brother Kenneth (Sam Rockwell) are two of several kids born to a broken home. They stick together their whole lives, getting into trouble together as young juvenile delinquents. “Kenny” in particular is trouble. As they become adults, he keeps fighting and causing problems that get him thrown in jail – but at the same time, wins people over with his charm and sense of humor.
No one is more susceptible to his charm than his sister, who often turns a blind eye to Kenny’s faults – even when he’s convicted of murder. Betty Anne is so determined to help her brother, she pursues a law degree just to try and reopen his case. Of course, there’s always the underlying question: what if he did do it?
It’s easy to see why Betty Anne likes Kenny so much – because we the audience sure do. The always-good Rockwell steals every scene he’s in. Yeah, he’s a loser, but he really is entertaining to watch. When he gets into a fight, like his sister, we don’t necessarily want him to get his ass kicked – we want to see how he will talk his way out of it and what he’ll do next.
Oscar winner Swank may not have as flashy a part, but she holds her own. It’s almost like seeing her as Maggie from Million Dollar Baby again – a kid with all kinds of disadvantages who’s feisty enough to fight for what she’s after. She’s still vulnerable – you feel for her when she’s down and you smile for her when she wins even a little battle.
Minnie Driver puts in a good supporting performance as a fellow law school student also getting a late start, and it’s great to see Juliette Lewis show up in a brief but meaty role. She hasn’t been seen enough on the big screen in the last couple of years.
As a family drama, Conviction is pretty good. As a legal drama, it falls a little flat. Director Tony Goldwyn has paced the movie so that the first two-thirds are all about family history and Betty Anne getting through law school. It’s not the least bit concerned about the circumstances of the murder Kenny goes to prison for. It’s matter-of-fact: he’s in prison; she’s going to try and get him out. And after awhile, you’re ok with that. The family stuff is good enough on its own
Then in the final third, Betty Anne gets serious, and Conviction becomes a legal drama – and not a very compelling one either. At that point, you’re a little too tired to weigh the evidence yourself, and you can poke some holes in its plot. Some of the legal complications get resolved a little too easily (there’s one dilemma that the film spends way too much time on to have it be solved by such common sense). Real-life star attorney Barry Scheck is brought in and anointed a good guy for his work with the Innocence Project (admirable, yes. But the movie about real-life events never mentions the words “OJ Simpson” when it comes to Scheck, as controversy might have diluted his perception to the audience.).
Further research into the case could disappoint audiences who want to learn more about the case – there are a couple of things that should have been in the postscript, and they may wonder why they were left out.
Goldwyn was probably convinced that some of the legal facts would get in the way of his sibling drama, and he may have been right. The emphasis is on the stronger stuff, and the Swank-Rockwell combination will convince you the movie was worth your time.