Friday, October 29, 2010


Conviction is based on a true story about a man (Sam Rockwell) wrongly convicted and sentenced to life in prison for a murder he did not commit. His sister (Hilary Swank), beginning her quest without even a high school diploma, spends the next several years of her life raising her two sons and struggling through college and law school to become the lawyer her brother needs. What may sound like a bad TV-movie of the week turns out to be so much more.

Screenwiter Pamela Gray and dirctor Tony Goldwyn deserve a fair amount of credit for finding a way to share this story without over-simplifying events or falling into an all too easy trap of caricature and cliché.

The film's central core is the relationship between a brother and sister who love, rely, protect and never give up on each other. It's the strong performances of Swank and Rockwell (as well as Bailee Madison and Tobias Campbell as their younger selves) that grounds the film as a compelling drama rather than just a feel good story about one woman's fight against insurmountable odds.

The structure of the film allows the viewer to experience both the good and bad of Betty Anne's (Swank) brother through her eyes. The script builds the relationship using memorable moments of their lives from early childhood through the years which Betty Anne travels to prison to try and offer Kenny (Rockwell) comfort and support. During these flashbacks we see how much love exists between the pair and how hard they've had to fight for each other over the years. It's these scenes that allow us to accept, without question, Betty Anne's decision to give up her own life and rededicate it to save his.

And her road certainly isn't an easy one. For every step she faces new and, at times, insurmountable obstacles including divorce, raising two children on her own, struggles in law school, missing evidence, and a long line of people unable or unwilling to assist her on her quest. The film tries to lessen the constant weight on Betty Anne's shoulders with the addition of Minnie Driver as Betty Anne's friend who provides two things in the film: a more impartial perspective on the case, and giving the film most of its more lighthearted moments.

Although the strength of the film is in Swank and Rockwell's story there are a few supporting performances of note. Clea DuVall and Juliette Lewis give us two examples of Kenny's relationships with women (they help put him in jail). Michele Messmer is Kenny and Betty Anne's far less than perfect mother. And Peter Gallagher, as a lawyer for the Innocence Project, has a small role as one of the few who help Betty Anne in her struggle.

Conviction is far from your typical legal drama. It isn't Betty Anne's legal prowess, vast experience, or legal chicanery that helps prove her brother's innocence. There are no big courtroom twists or antics and no surprise witnesses appearing at the last minute. Instead it's her belief in Kenny's innocence, her perseverance, and an inability to accept defeat that wins the day.

My only real complaint with the film is the lack of perspective from the police officer (Melissa Leo) responsible for the conviction. I have no doubt the family sees her as the main villain of the piece, as she is directly responsible for Kenny's time in prison, but given the time and effort into other aspects of the story some clarification or investigation into her motivations other than the conclusion she's simply evil would have been nice. It's one of the only times the film relies on an easy, over-simplistic answer. Other than this aberration, Conviction acknowledges the harder truth makes a far more engrossing story.

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