Movie Review: ‘Conviction’
While Conviction is a compelling film, it is not cutting edge cinema. There is no kinetic camera-work, snappy dialogue, or breathtaking visual effects. No huge plot twists exist that will keep water cooler conversations interesting or bloggers obsessed with that one scene that proves whether or not it is all reality. It’s not even that original of a story. This movie will fit nicely on a shelf that includes Dead Man Walking, The Shawshank Redemption, and In the Name of the Father.And while it is not the best film in the redemptive-prison-movie club, it is certainly deserving of a membership.
What Conviction does have, though, is heart. This is a film that does away with any unnecessary frivolity and focuses solely on telling a strong story. This story is a simple one. A man is convicted of a murder and sentenced to a life in prison. His sister vehemently rejects this verdict and spends close to two decades attempting to prove his innocence. Her most notable accomplishment throughout these years is a journey through law school, solely for the purpose of freeing her brother. This is no small feat for even the most dedicated of students; however, rarely will people spend money and invest time in becoming lawyers with the aspiration of only having one case.
Betty Anne Waters, played by Hilary Swank, is this sister. She is an average person who lives an average life and, on the surface, would never seem destined for greatness. She is not someone of great intellect, skill, talent or charisma. She is merely a woman who through determination, perseverance, optimism and a whole lot of love manages to accomplish something incredible. This is the type of role that Hilary Swank seems born to perform.
She plays Betty Anne Waters with a lack of grace and not an ounce of vanity. Betty Anne is interested in saving her brother, and spending energy on her appearance negates her primary focus, so no time is given to it. She commonly wears sweatshirts to school, throws her hair into a pony tail and has to be reminded to dress “like a lawyer”. She is not someone who would commonly be picked out of a crowd.
Like all of Swank’s most notable roles, she permeates strength and sincerity, characteristics that seem to resonate deeply within her. Her ability to play women who lack femininity, while still maintaining great warmth and honesty is astounding. This is certainly not meant to be an insult. While she is not unattractive, her appearance is not an important factor for the acclaim she has received.
Swank could have played this role with perfect makeup, hair, and attire, but she insists instead on Betty Anne’s normalcy and near homeliness. In doing this, she gives realism to her character that would not have existed otherwise. What sets Betty Anne apart from other people is not the physical, but instead the internal.
Her childhood was of the “hard-knocked” variety and her faithful companion throughout was her brother Kenny Waters, played by Sam Rockwell. He is the only person in her life that she could ever rely on. A result of a broken home, they literally cling to one another through their childhoods as they cope with a whiny, negligent, promiscuous mother. These kids have it so bad; they actually break into trailers to pretend they have happier, healthier lives.
As Betty Anne evolves into adulthood, she contentedly embraces Kenny as her only “true” family. This bond sets up the execution for the rest of the film. She acquires a husband, children and her own livelihood, but her love for Kenny is of the unconditional variety and always remains a constant. Her aspirations in life are clearly an attempt to polarize her adulthood from her childhood. She wants to be a good wife, a good mother and always put her family first. Her family, of course, includes Kenny, thus she will do whatever she can to save him.
Kenny is not necessarily a great guy, but he’s too charismatic for anyone to consider him a bad guy and while he seems to have a heart of gold, he also has an easily released dark side. Basically, he is suffering from “loose cannon” syndrome. Kenny dances with his infant daughter like she is the only person in the room and cracks jokes in court to relieve any stress that his sister may be feeling. However, he also gets into barroom brawls over the slightest of disputes and goes from giddy to furious in an instant.
Whatever trouble he gets into can usually be absolved with a big grin or a goofy dance. It may be hard to like what he does, but it’s even harder to dislike him. While there is no real question about whether he would hurt someone he loves, there is ambiguity about what he might do to someone he didn’t. It is in this gray area of decency and corruption that Sam Rockwell truly shines. Rockwell has been playing roles like this for years and even though he constantly goes unnoticed, he is extremely good at what he does. He would certainly get my vote for one of the most underrated actors. Although, I am hoping that after this performance, his name will be taken off of that ballot and possibly put on a new one.
There is a conversation between Betty Anne and her two sons at one point in the film. The children are discussing if they would make the same sacrifices for one another that she makes for Kenny. Regardless of their answers, the longevity of her pursuit is impressive one. Plenty of people have heroic moments, but few are brave for eighteen solid years. I thought going into the film that the title, Conviction, was representative of Kenny Waters’ sentencing for murder. It wasn’t until it’s conclusion that I realized it could also signify Betty Anne’s dedication in proving his sentence false. It is her conviction that sets this apart from a normal story and turns it into one worth watching.
Rating 3.5/5. Conviction is directed by Tony Goldwyn. Written by Pamela Gray. Rated R for language and violent images. Starring Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell and Melissa Leo.