Innocence. Family. Justice.
Three words that, more or less, sum up Tony Goldwyn’s new film, Conviction. The movie tells the “incredible true story” of Betty Anne Walters (Hilary Swank, Million Dollar Baby), a woman whose enduring devotion to her wrongfully convicted brother, Kenny (Sam Rockwell, Moon), puts her through college and law school in order to defend him.
What I took away from the movie was fairly straightforward. Injustice.
That is, two veins of injustice, with respect to the storyline and its execution.
The obvious moral overtone of the film is handled in an albeit tasteful way, establishing the message right off the bat, but without shoving it down the audience’s throat. Opening with a careful tight shot of Kenny being patted down in prison, Conviction frames the narrative in flashbacks — so it’s a little more than your typical hero’s journey of triumph. Goldwyn uses this retrospective structure to his advantage, as he weaves in Betty Anne and Kenny’s childlike innocence throughout various life stages; as children and later, as adults.
Swank carries her leading role with conviction (pun intended), determination and a forced Massachusetts accent, yet Betty Anne’s compelling motivation and heartwarming devotion to her brother effuses across the screen. Rockwell strikes a perfect balance in Kenny’s roughness and charm, whose pure reactions to the small triumphs in his case add a humorous dimension to a fundamentally serious plot. After his sister passes the bar, Kenny flails around the prison’s visiting room, overjoyed, even jumping and straddling a police officer in a hug.
We already know that the film concentrates on Betty Anne’s “incredible true story,” but this focus leads to a detraction from Kenny’s character development. Rockwell’s acting is top-notch, portraying Kenny with a unique sense of charm and an atrocious temper.
The plot build ups are what you’d expect from such a human interest story: conflict, despair, resolution and triumph. True to form, Goldwyn adheres to this narrative formula, but falls short in depicting the movie’s passage of time. The audience is constantly reminded that the evidence from Kenny’s case 16 years old, but looking at Swank, such delay is not evident. Also unrealistic is Betty Anne’s journey through law school, which isn’t a smooth and easy ride, but Goldwyn sets up conflicts (Betty Anne is failing and on academic probation) without properly, or realistically, resolving them. Swank’s character goes from failing and cutting class to passing the bar. Rock bottom to hunky-dory, just like that.
From a holistic perspective, Conviction reinforces the pervasiveness of injustices in the legal system, which carries extraordinary relevance today (especially on Northwestern’s campus, home of the Medill Innocence Project). While I certainly didn’t feel mobilized to go immediately to practice law and get convicts off death row, I did leave the theater charged with something — something that stirred in me an impulse for change. Through Swank’s deliverance of Betty Anne’s unwavering doubt in her brother’s innocence, her attitude leaps off the screen and strikes a chord in the audience.
Minnie Driver plays Abra Rice, the only other student in Betty Anne’s law class who has, in Abra’s words, “hit puberty.” Driver delivers the character with great poignancy, adding much needed comic relief to the film, but without detracting from the strong message. Although very fitting for Peter Gallagher (The O.C.) to assume the role of Barry Scheck, the Innocence Project representative or “Jew lawyer,” Scheck’s character did not substantially drive the plot and seemed to be more of an afterthought.
The subplot of Kenny’s relationship with his daughter, Mandy, did add emotional depth to both Rockwell’s character and the story as a whole, yet this storyline was also rather underdeveloped, and its progression was rather forced — for the sake of the plot, rather than the characters.
Conviction is a strong story, complimented with captivating acting, yet as a whole, the movie does hit a few speed bumps along the way, coming up short. But one thing is indisputable: the power of Betty Anne’s story.