Thursday, October 21, 2010

Review: "Conviction"

"Conviction" is a well-meaning drama that contains absolutely zero surprises. Hilary Swank gives another strong, stubborn performance as a working-class woman who essentially put her life on hold for two decades to get her brother sprung from prison on a wrongful murder conviction. We know even before the arrest that he will eventually be let go, because why else would they bother making this movie, based on a true story?

Tony Goldwyn directs in a resolute, straightforward manner that never allows any doubts about who the good and bad guys are. Melissa Leo, playing the ambitious cop who made the arrest, is denied even a sliver of humanity. There's one scene, years later, of Betty Anne Waters (Swank) confronting the cop, and she makes some weak excuse about being the only woman on the force in the early 1980s.

Tales of this officer's misdeeds continue, but she's never seen or heard from again. If she's supposed to represent the villain of the piece, then screenwriter Pamela Gray does a poor job of setting her up as a worthy antagonist.

The story begins with the arrest of Betty Anne's brother, Kenny (Sam Rockwell). Because he has a criminal record, the local police harass him over every misdeed committed in the community. But officer Nancy Taylor (Leo) seems to hold a special grudge against him. Kenny is depicted as a rebellious spirit who loves his sister fiercely, but just can't back down when he's pushed.

After it's clear no lawyer will touch the case, Betty Anne resolves to go to law school herself so she can represent her brother. Lacking even a high school diploma, this process takes years and years, during which time her marriage (Loren Dean plays the husband) dissolves and her relationship with her two sons grows strained.

What makes it a great role for Swank is that Betty Anne just won't take no for answer and won't give up -- even when Kenny does. Rockwell gives a genuine performance of measured power, as Kenny's will is slowly sapped out of him by the passing of time and the fading of hope. Rockwell makes us feel the years.

Minnie Driver plays a fellow older law student who offers her friendship and assistance, and Peter Gallagher plays Barry Scheck, the head of the Innocence Project, which provides a hand in getting Kenny freed. Juliette Lewis has a small, (unintentionally?) comic turn as one of the witnesses who helped seal Kenny's fate, and now provides a key break in the case.

As a legal drama, "Conviction" doesn't really have much plot to churn over. Betty Anne isn't portrayed as some kind of blue-collar Eliza Doolittle who suddenly transforms into a legal savant. Their case is built entirely around the slim hope of finding some blood evidence that wasn't destroyed so they can have it DNA tested.

I don't know how many scenes there are of Betty Anne and her cohorts phoning, pleading, looking through storage rooms in search of the elusive DNA. Of course, we know it will eventually turn up. Once it's found, though -- a little more than an hour into the film's run time -- the story keeps finding ways to delay the inevitable, and milk the dramaturgy.

As is to be expected in a Hollywood movie, certain liberties have been taken. The film portrays the time between which the DNA evidence turned up until Kenny's release as more than a year, when in fact it was something like two weeks.

Strangely, in the inevitable title cards right before the end credits that explain what happened to the various people, it doesn't mention that Kenny Waters died in a fall a few months after getting out of prison.

As a film that got a lot of early mentions for Oscar contention, there's no denying "Conviction" registers as a disappointment. Swank and Rockwell still give fine performances, almost enough to recommend the movie on that basis alone. The stubbornness of Betty Anne, though, is mirrored in the script's tunnel-vision approach to storytelling, which doesn't leave much room for nuance or complexity.

2 stars out of four

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