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Theatrical Review: CONVICTION

Kate Erbland

by: Kate Erbland
October 14th, 2010

CONVICTION Hilary Swank Sam Rockwell

Rating: 3/5

Writer: Pamela Gray
Director: Tony Goldwyn
Cast: Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Minnie Driver, Melissa Leo, Peter Gallagher, Clea DuVall, Juliette Lewis
Studio: Fox Searchlight

“The innocent is the person who explains nothing.” – Albert Camus

But it’s not the innocents that we really need to worry about in Tony Goldwyn’s CONVICTION – it’s those that need to do the explaining. Based on the true story of convicted murderer Kenny Waters (Sam Rockwell), the film tells the incredible tale of Waters and his sister, Betty Anne (Hilary Swank). So convinced of her brother’s innocence, and believing that no one else cared enough to do all that explaining, Betty Anne put herself through college and law school, so that she could represent her brother and prove that damn innocence.

Kenny was put in jail (a life sentence, without parole) for a murder he didn’t commit, and Betty Anne is convinced (naturally) that there is some way that she can prove it, especially if she gets her lawyer chops. What CONVICTION ultimately boils down to is a search for a box. During her time in law school, Betty Anne learns about new DNA technology (the film takes place in the eighties and early nineties) and Barry Scheck’s (Peter Gallagher, majestic as ever) The Innocence Project. Betty Anne believes that if she can find the box of evidence containing blood samples from both the victim and the perpetrator of the crime, it will prove that Kenny is innocent. But not only is that evidence more than ten years old (and has apparently been destroyed, per Massachusetts law), there’s also a number of witnesses to prove were lying, a possibly crooked police department, and a DA with something to prove. But, really, all we need is that box.

If that all sounds a little bog-gy, it is. CONVICTION crawls through its middle third, scattering itself and never focusing too long on anything to really get us involved. CONVICTION should strike heartstrings hard and fast and often, but the procedure of it all weakens the emotions. But though other storytelling tricks in the film, such as flashbacks to Betty Anne and Kenny’s childhood, may seem cheesy in their first usage, they prove to be essential to understanding not only the intense bond between the siblings, but some of the missteps that have gotten Kenny behind bars. CONVICTION may lay some things out too well, but it works for audience understanding. You can see just how everything has gone. You can see exactly why we’re here.

Though we know Betty Anne endures plenty of trials and tribulations on the road to procuring her GED, her BA, her law degree, and a passing score on the Bar, the film glosses over many of those elements of the story. It’s understandable enough, CONVICTION covers a large patch of time, and there are many pieces to cover, but it frequently feels short shrift. While we can see the toll on Kenny through repeated prison visits (he is aged, but Rockwell also works his voice, his posture, his mannerisms down to an understated devastation), Betty Anne only grows into herself, her stresses not visible. Betty Anne loses plenty of things – her husband, her kids (temporarily) – to make her tragedy just as compelling as Kenny’s, but the requisite “falling to the ground in tears” and “angrily throwing things” scenes seem rote. Swank is better than this. This story is greater than this.

Rockwell is, as ever, endlessly watchable. At one point, Kenny’s mother compares him to a wild animal, and Rockwell is nothing short of that. His Kenny is funny and terrible and feral and crazy and unbridled. Kenny is layered – he is both able to be loved intensely by Betty Anne and to be accused of a horrific crime. Rockwell does both with ease and charisma. Betty Anne is the sort of bread and butter role that has Swank written all over it. She can turn in this kind of performance in her sleep – gritty, willful, determined.

The supporting cast of CONVICTION is just as strong as Rockwell and Swank, no matter how briefly we may see them. Melissa Leo is repugnant and maddening as Officer Travis. Minnie Driver is brassy and bold as Betty Anne’s best friend (and fellow “old lady” law student), Abra Rice. And there is no one (not even co-star Clea DuVall) that can do white trash the way Juliette Lewis can.

But despite nothing but good work from its immensely talented cast, CONVICTION cannot rise above. There’s just nothing in particular that elevates CONVICTION beyond simply being a solid entry into the criminal injustice genre. It is sometimes stirring, occasionally touching, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. CONVICTION is best explained as being the exact film you expect it to be – nothing more, nothing less. Solid. Forgettable.

I would be remiss to not mention a further not on the true story behind CONVICTION - the lingering issue of what became of Kenny Waters. While the ending of CONVICTION gives us details on what happened to Betty Anne, the same details are missing for Kenny. If you so choose, feel free to simply Google the name “Kenny Waters.” What happened to the real Kenny does not just add a new level to the film, its own tragedy and heartbreak threaten to overwhelm the entire project. It’s a sad story – but, even more than that, it’s the better story.


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