'Conviction': A True Story, Prettied Up For A Picture

Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell

Devotedly Determined: Hilary Swank stars as Betty Anne Waters, a single mother of two who spends 18 years becoming a lawyer in order to free her brother Kenny, played by Sam Rockwell, from prison. Fox Searchlight Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Fox Searchlight Pictures

Conviction

  • Director: Tony Goldwyn
  • Genre: Drama
  • Running Time: 106 minutes

Rated R for some language and violent images

With: Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Minnie Driver, Loren Dean, Melissa Leo

When her brother Kenny was sentenced to life without parole for the 1983 murder of Katharina Brow, Betty Anne Waters was a single mother of two, living hand-to-mouth as a part-time bar waitress. Convinced of her brother's innocence — and lacking the resources to pay for an appeal — Waters got her GED, earned a bachelor's degree in education, and eventually enrolled in law school, all in an 18-year mission to get him exonerated. She teamed up with Barry Scheck and his Innocence Project, sent the DNA evidence to be tested and — well, any Hollywood hack could tell you how it ends.

It's an amazing underdog story of perseverance and sacrifice, of the bond between siblings and of a justice system mercilessly stacked against the poor and disenfranchised. And the best, alas, that could be said of Conviction, Tony Goldwyn's down-the-middle treatment of these true-life events, is that it doesn't trample over a sure-fire winner. Goldwyn, an actor who's directed a few feature films (and lots of television, including episodes of Grey's Anatomy and Dexter), doesn't get more cinematic than the average network procedural; screenwriter Pamela Gray, meanwhile, pours the details of Waters' story into a ready-made template.

Two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank reaches for the trifecta in a damp-eyed performance as Waters, who comes off as an Erin Brockovich type with half the brassiness and 10 times the blue-collar credibility. Flashbacks reveal the close relationship between Waters and her ne'er-do-well brother Kenny (played later in life by Sam Rockwell) as rooted in a devotion forged from surviving a broken home.

In the small town of Ayer, Mass., Kenny was well known as a troublemaker, so when the owner of a house he burglarized as a child turns up stabbed to death, suspicion naturally falls on him. On the strength of a crude blood test and testimony from dubious witnesses, he gets the maximum sentence, sending Waters on a single-minded quest with tremendous personal consequences.

Minnie Driver and Hilary Swank

Minnie Driver plays Abra Rice, a law-school friend who helps Betty Anne prove her brother's innocence. Ron Batzdorff/Fox Searchlight Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Ron Batzdorff/Fox Searchlight Pictures

The outlines of Waters' story are inevitably touching, and a gallery of fine performances, including a lively little turn by Minnie Driver as Waters' law-school chum, help to animate it. But whenever Goldwyn and Gray are forced to sketch in the particulars, the cliches come pouring out. There's a put-upon husband whose only purpose is to harangue Waters over taking up a lost cause, two sons crestfallen over mom flaking on their fishing trip, and a trailer-trash witness played so garishly by Juliette Lewis that even Jeff Foxworthy would blush.

What's really missing from Conviction are the thorny questions it refuses to take up with any depth. Does Waters' affection for Kenny blind her to the possibility that he could commit such a terrible crime? (She kicks out anyone who asks.) And how does her sacrifice ripple through those closest to her, whose own sacrifices are involuntary? Conviction buffs out any rough edges that might complicate its inspirational bent, and the result is curiously and needlessly inauthentic. True stories shouldn't feel this false.

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