Film Review: Conviction
I saw Conviction at the Toronto International Film Festival. Films from the festival are now opening in theaters. (Conviction opened October 15th.) This is a commercial film that deploys its stars for the best reasons ““ virtuoso acting.
Miscarriages of justice are as American as the death penalty, and even more common. Conviction, the latest from Tony Goldwyn, reconstructs the miraculous reversal of a murder verdict that freed an innocent man wrongly jailed for life. He was saved by luck, and by a devoted sister.
Wrongful conviction melodramas are the bread and butter of television. Yet Convictions cast and the glaring injustice of the case that inspired the film could rally the US public to see it in theaters. Hilary Swank as an uneducated mother who devoted years to digging up evidence to overturn the conviction of neer-do-well brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell) could earn award nominations. For once those awards might mean something.
Given Oscar-winner Swanks marketability and performances that place the film above the mass of Boston crime stories (like The Town, which played to hype in Toronto but should be marketed with the quote “get out of The Town”), Conviction should play well in English-speaking territories.
Conviction, based on a true story, unfolds outside Boston, in Ayer, a rural town where Betty Anne and Kenny Waters grew up poor with a neglectful single mother (Karen Allen). In flashbacks, Pamela Grays script shows a special bond form as the two kids break into houses together. The family that steals together stays together? Sadly, this one didnt.
A local nuisance as a young man, Kenny is arrested when a elderly woman is stabbed to death. Released at first, two years later hes convicted and imprisoned for life after two bitter (and bribed) ex-girlfriends testify that he boasted about the killing.
Convinced that hes innocent, sister Betty Anne (Swank) mobilizes, completing high school and earning a law degree at 40 while tending bar at night. Her marriage is the next casualty after Kenny is sent away to the slammer. She and classmate Abra Rice (Minnie Driver) make freeing him a mission that takes 17 years to achieve.
Conviction is not Tony Goldwyns Erin Brockovich, although comparisons are inevitable. Its the tale of a shy self-deprecating provincial womans empowerment, not a chronicle about a movement for justice.
Swank plays the part with an agile nuance, as the murder verdict moves her to incredulity, helplessness, anger and determination. Its not just a portrait of sainthood. Betty Anne can be hopelessly disorganized, and is prone to wild rages when anyone suggests that Kenny might be guilty.
Its tour de force for Swank, but Rockwell as Kenny is joltingly real as a child troublemaker whos the first to be charged with any crime in the small town. Volatile, wise-cracking, and self-destructive, hes the life of the party ““ even the prison guards like him – but hes also the guy whom respectable people want to see in jail. Rockwell will have to work hard to equal this performance. This is the role of his life.
The supporting cast is unusually strong. Minnie Driver, like Swank, has a flair for Boston profanity normally reserved for men. Melissa Leo is chilling as the local woman cop who assembles the “evidence” from ex-girlfriends, and remains unrepentant.
The sagas diva moment comes from Juliette Lewis as Roseanna Perry, a drunken ex with a guilty conscience. When Betty Anne approaches her to recant her testimony, she stands soliloquy on its head with a flustered confession infused with cheap vanity and malapropisms. One of the many sad ironies of Conviction is that a jury sent a man to prison for life based on deceitful testimony from such a character.
Pamela Grays script builds on moments like that, and not on the generic courtroom and prison scenes of television series and Boston mob movies. Gray has a sensitive ear for nasal Boston gab, which can deflate any moment of solemnity with the right put-down.
Cinematography by DP Adriano Goldman observes the ordinary town where Betty Anne and Kenny raised each other, and never gets in the actors way.
Those who followed the Waters case in the media may find it odd that Conviction omits a crucial part of the story. Six months after his release from prison, Kenny Waters struck his head in a fall, and died. Its a grim case of fates indifference to the years of labor that finally set him free, and nothing if not a dark plot twist. That kind of reality check didnt fit the spirit of triumph that Goldwyn wanted the audience to take home. The film would have been even better if it had included the bitter reality check of another good deed not going unpunished.