Conviction opens with a 1980 crime scene in Ayer, Mass. In a little trailer home in the country, clothes and furniture are scattered across the floor; blood is smeared all over the walls and doors; and a female corpse rests peacefully beside her bed. This gritty progression, with slow shots, quiet music and a solemn atmosphere, marks an artistry that could have made Tony Goldwyn’s biographical drama a masterpiece given the story and cast. Unfortunately, this accomplished scene is the only one of its kind to show distinction or imagination, and because of this as well as some blunders in the script, the film, which was destined for greatness, has to settle for something just below that.
To put it more bluntly, (with the opening sequence aside) Goldwyn doesn’t appear to have an innovative bone in his body, as none of his visuals stand out. He has no sense of style and no aptitude for pacing, unknowing of when particular shots should move or linger. The unpedigreed director, who does, however, know when to queue the highly emotional score, almost kills the movie by lack of vitality. Fortunately for him, his leads, Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell, do know what they’re doing, and they refuse to let the powerful narrative go to waste.
The film, written by Pamela Gray, tells the true story of Betty Anne Waters, a Massachusetts mother who gave up 18 years of her life to free her brother, Kenneth, from a life sentence without parole. Kenneth was wrongfully accused of murder in 1983 when his former wife and an ex-lover testified against him in court, nearly three years after the crime. This led Betty Anne on a relentless quest to prove his innocence. She went back to school to get her GED and, eventually, her law degree, all while working as a waitress and raising two boys on her own. With help from Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project, she eventually cracked the case after finding forensic evidence that linked someone else to the murder.
Gray takes on the difficult task of trying to compile this whole experience into a single motion picture, as well as the background story that develops the relationship between Betty Anne and Kenneth, who spent the better half of their childhood in separate foster homes. As far as the family bond goes, Gray handles the charge successfully, and with grace. She does so by paralleling the past and present through flashbacks. In one scene, the siblings—as young kids—get into some not-too-serious trouble with the law, inspiring little Kenneth to distract two policemen so that Betty Anne can run away in the field. Scenes like this make the connection between the brother and sister not only conceivable, but also touching.
Where Gray gets into trouble is in the main plot of the story. Though Betty Anne never stopped her pursuit for all that time, 18 years is a long time-span to cover and Gray has a bit of trouble handling it. She leaves out a couple of key story pieces like, say, Kenneth’s experiences in prison, and replaces them with unnecessary scenes, such as those related to Betty Anne’s friendship with a fellow law student, at times giving too much or too little story. The script’s missteps are, nevertheless, too minor to distract from the overarching thread it unravels; plus, it’s unlikely to think even the most adept screenwriter could have captured the story without giving up something. Gray, moreover, accomplishes the essentials of a good narrative and, most importantly, characters whom we believe in and care for.
Clearly the most compelling of these individuals is the film’s heroine, Betty Anne. Despite moments of weakness and hopelessness, she never gives up. She is fiery, single-minded and selfless, yet not so holy that she loses human qualities or a degree of humanness that seems out of reach. With a knack for playing independent, driven women, Swank becomes this character as if she had spent her entire life already being her. We forget Betty Anne is just an actress in costume. She is a person—a person we love, cheer on and admire. Mastering the Bay Stater accent and all, Swank should at the very least be nominated for an Oscar because of her performance.
Which, of course, isn't always determined by quality of performance. For example, Rockwell received no recognition for his role in the underrated Moon, a Kubrick-esque film in which he played, with pure sincerity, two characters who were one in the same, but George Clooney got praised for simply showing up in Up in the Air. Surely the Academy will redeem itself by nominating Rockwell for a supporting role here. He deserves it. Playing Kenneth who is likable and hilarious, Rockwell takes on a persona unlike any other he has portrayed and gives comic relief to the very serious story. Kenneth is a man of complexities: He goes from trying to kill himself in prison to running on the prison basketball courts celebrating his freedom. He is also a man who deeply loves his daughter, who has believed her entire life that her father is a murderer. Not for one second does Rockwell fail to invoke the depths of this deeply flawed man.
Kenneth, moreover, helps give us a perspective on the film. In a conversation with Betty Anne, he tells her that, in all reality, he is not a good or innocent man. It’s not that he really committed the murder, but he comes to the realization that he had prison coming to him because of the way he lived and that he ultimately deserved his punishment. While Betty Anne’s love and sacrifice obviously reflect Christ’s, as she gave up everything to free her brother, it holds so much more weight with Kenneth’s words in mind.
Multiple times throughout Conviction, Kenneth tells Betty Anne that he doesn’t belong in prison, that he is miserable. The same is true for us. We weren’t meant to live in chains, not now and not later. And the beautiful thing is that, despite how guilty way may be, we don’t have to, and Betty Anne’s story reminds us of that.