A sure-fire crowd pleaser, the film "Conviction" is based on an undeniably (and practically unbelievable) compelling true life story. Betty Anne Waters, a high school drop-out with a troubled youth, dedicated nearly two decades of her life to clear her unjustly convicted brother of a murder charge. She got a GED, applied and got into college, graduated law school and passed the bar, became her brother's representation and uncovered exculpatory evidence. But despite all her best efforts, it was still quite a trial to be heard and taken seriously. While I've thrown a lot of the film's plot at you right away, the advertising campaign already covers the same ground. This is a movie about character and the long road to justice as seen through Betty Anne's eyes (an imposing Hilary Swank). Far from a perfect movie, however, I'm sure audience will still embrace this--the ultimate underdog story.
Swank, as I mentioned, headlines this piece with a hard edged perseverance. She is quite believable as the matter-of-fact Betty Anne. Sam Rockwell plays her brother, the town troublemaker, with equal parts charm and menace. It's perhaps the film's most compelling performance and there are moments when he sinks to desperation that have real emotional resonance. Minnie Driver befriends Swank in law school, and though their friendship is contrived at best, she becomes a welcome presence in the film. She stands as the one truly appealing character as Swank's mania borders on selfishness and Rockwell is an unstable powder keg. Ironically, the film wants to continuously solicit sympathy for its leads without confronting the unpleasant truths--particularly that Rockwell was a violent repeat offender whom the entire town was able to embrace as a cold blooded killer.
My biggest concern about "Conviction" had little to do with the actual search for justice and everything to do with Betty Anne's character. She pursues her goal steadfastly--to the ruination of her marriage and the alienation of her children. Her conviction, as it were, has turned to obsession and every waking moment of her life in the film is dedicated to this one specific purpose. I can't help but think that the film necessarily glosses over some of the more unpleasant aspects of this pursuit. We get little of Swank's husband, her kids seem mildly annoyed once but are fine with their mother's lack of family focus, and there are never any concerns at work. More telling, Swank hasn't had a relationship with her beloved brother's daughter in all the time he's been in prison. I understand that such a relationship might have been complicated, but the film doesn't even try to explain her complete lack of concern over this family bond. She calls her niece near the end of the film and actually says in the message-- "you may not remember me." Wow! Seems like some of her dogged determination might have been applied to other relationships as well!
But, again, I don't think any of this will matter to most. At heart, there is no escaping the facts of "Conviction" and they present a uniquely fascinating story. The little guy sticking it to the man, David versus Goliath, "never quit"--man, I'm practically cheering myself. "Conviction" is a good film filled with earnest performances (a drunk Juliette Lewis is inspired) told in standard biopic format. I don't think it digs quite far enough into the characterizations, but the story sells itself. Fascinating, scary, frustrating, and even inspiring--the Betty Anne Waters saga was begging to be represented on the big screen! KGHarris, 10/10.