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November 6, 2010


Conviction presents a compelling legal drama, kicking off the holiday movie season. It’s pure Oscar bait, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank) and her older brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell) grew up in a blue-collar rural exurb of Boston. With little in the way of parenting, they got into a fair bit of trouble, but they came to love and depend on each other. Kenny kept on getting into regular trouble as he got older, while Betty Anne married and started a family. Still, they remained close. Until one day an old woman was violently murdered, and the police, specifically the ambitious officer Nancy Taylor (Melissa Leo), immediately went to their usual suspect: Kenny. He was tried largely on hearsay evidence from his ex-wife (Clea DuVall) and an ex-girlfriend (Juliette Lewis), convicted, and sent to prison for life with no possibility of parole. Betty Anne, ever loyal to her brother, decides that since they can’t afford a lawyer, she’ll go to law school to act as his lawyer.

Just as soon as she goes to college.

Just as soon as she gets her GED.

While raising two sons alone and working part-time as a waitress.

Of course, she doesn’t do it completely alone; she makes fast friends with a fellow law student (Minnie Driver) who is “the only other one in the class who’s gone through puberty”, and she manages to enlist the aid of Barry Scheck (Peter Gallagher) of the Innocence Project. Together they set out to track down ancient evidence, convince old witnesses to recant their testimony, and prove Kenny’s innocence.

It’s all unbelievably contrived, and obviously crafted to maximize the obstacles Betty Anne will have to overcome in her efforts to free her brother. All, that is, except for one thing: it’s actually a true story. Kenneth Waters really was sent to prison for murdering Katherina Brow in Ayers, Massachusetts in 1983, and his sister Betty Anne really did manage to get his conviction overturned eighteen years later. Yes, the story is slightly massaged into the right contours for its award-garnering aspirations, but the basic story really happened, and more or less as it’s portrayed

Tony Goldwyn does wisely spends most of his energies as a director getting out of Pamela Gray’s (A Walk on the Moon) excellent script. Most of what he adds goes into the atmosphere; the whole movie feels stuck in the cold December day when Kenny was first arrested — okay it was really May, but those are details — and when Betty Anne started devoting her entire life to her brother’s innocence.

Swank disappears into her role as usual, and Rockwell also turns in a solid performance. But I was actually most impressed by Lewis; despite her relatively minor role, she carries one of the most compelling scenes of the entire movie. It’s really nice to be reminded that despite the quirky/annoying sidekick she often seems typecast as, she really does have some serious talent.

So, will Conviction live up to its own expectations? Luckily our wait is more like eighteen weeks than eighteen years.

Worth it: yes.
Bechdel test: pass.

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