Mark Reviews Movies


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Tony Goldwyn

Cast: Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Minnie Driver, Connor Donovan, Owen Campbell, Melissa Leo, Peter Gallagher, Clea DuVall, Ari Graynor, Karen Young, Loren Dean, Juliette Lewis

MPAA Rating: R (for language and some violent images)

Running Time: 1:46

Release Date: 10/15/10

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Review by Mark Dujsik | October 15, 2010

At the heart of Conviction is the relationship between a sister and brother forged in youth by hardships—forced separation, an indifferent family, the view from those around them that they are damaged goods, and the inevitable fear that they will live up to those expectations. Despite it all, they have survived, and because of it all, they and their bond have become resilient to any obstacle that they might face.

A lazy screenwriter would assume immediate involvement in these characters without so much detail. After all, they are siblings—blood is thicker than water, he ain't heavy, and the rest—and it is based on a true story. Pamela Gray's screenplay, though, takes that time in the first act to observe these two in the most defining moments of their relationship.

These aren't always powerful, dramatic moments. Sometimes it's just remembering how her brother danced with his baby daughter. Or there was the time in their childhood that they fell asleep in a neighbor's house after imagining they had a normal life, free of a mother who appreciates her children like a pebble in her shoe.

Even those moments weren't perfect. He did later punch a man in the face and threatened the guy with a broken beer bottle. And when they were kids, the police caught them, and he was arrested for throwing a rock at and grabbing one of the cops.

Still, there were reasons. The man might have insulted his daughter, and he was only trying to keep the police away from his younger sister. No one could really stay mad at Kenny Waters (Sam Rockwell) is kind of the point. He didn't let anyone, because he'd just jump up on stage and do a striptease for the crowd. The film's determination just to watch Kenny and his sister Betty Anne (Hilary Swank) in these moments earns it the license fall back on the details of the legal drama that soon follows.

It is 1980 in Ayer, Massachusetts, and a woman has been murdered—stabbed 30 times, her head struck repeatedly with a lamp. Since Kenny has a criminal record, he is—just like any time there is a crime—brought in for questioning by Officer Nancy Taylor (Melissa Leo). He is quickly dismissed as a suspect, and Betty is waiting for him when he's released from the station.

Two years later, Kenny is arrested for and charged with the murder in front of his entire family at his grandfather's funeral. At the trial, the perpetrator's blood type matches Kenny's, his wife Brenda (Clea DuVall), former lover (Juliette Lewis), and mother (Karen Young) all testify against him, the first two even stating Kenny confessed the murder to them. A jury finds him guilty, and he is sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Betty knows there has been a mistake, and no amount of evidence, testimony, or doubts of friends and loved ones can change her mind. Over the next 18 years, she receives her GED, earns a bachelor's degree, finishes law school, passes the bar exam, and fights to overturn Kenny's conviction. All the while, she works nights at a local bar and grill and raises two sons (Conor Donovan and Owen Campbell) on her own.

Once Betty moves past the preparation stages to represent Kenny, the film shifts from the personal drama the siblings to a step-by-step account of her attempting to reopen his case or have his sentence rescinded. It works but not as well or affectively as the buildup. In those scenes, there's a tangible sense of their bond. Before Betty begins her plan, she visits Kenny after he attempted suicide. He's no good to anyone, he figures, and she tells him what she's planning to do, as long as he promises not to try to kill himself again. Swank and Rockwell play their roles in between the lines. Kenny doesn't need to answer his sister after that.  The look on his face says it all (Director Tony Goldwyn knows to hold on Rockwell longer than Swank), because here, right in front of him, is a rebuttal to his own argument of his worth. His unabashedly joyous response when Betty tells Kenny of her success is the climax of the intimate view into their lives.

Then Gray's script falls into the routine: hunting old evidence, enlisting the aid of topnotch attorney Barry Scheck (Peter Gallagher) of the Innocence Project, kicking the process into gear after some political grandstanding, and interviewing those who testified against Kenny. Betty's attempts to convince Kenny's daughter (Ari Graynor) of her father's innocence has promise, but it's barely touched before reaching a resolution.

The final acts of Conviction reach a lesser level in terms of conventionality (Even the coda fails to acknowledge a vital, tragic component of the story in favor of a traditional happy ending). Still, Swank and Rockwell form a strong bond, and Gray and Goldwyn's compassionate glimpse into the lives of these two determined people gives even the more standard elements merit.

Copyright © 2010 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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