DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: Conviction

Friday 11 February 2011


Conviction (2010) dir. Tony Goldwyn
Starring: Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Melissa Leo, Peter Gallagher, Ele Bardha


By Alan Bacchus

It’s a clever double-meaning for the title, Conviction, referencing both the result of Kenny Water’s arrest and trial for a 1984 murder of a former babysitter, as well as his sister Betty Anne’s long fight and internal fortitude to exhonerate Kenny from his seemingly wrongful sentence.

We’re in the increasingly popular world of working class Massachussets (ie. The Fighter, Gone Baby Gone, The Town, The Departed). Kenny Waters (Sam Rockwell), a loose cannon n’er-do-well is arrested for murder of a former babysitter. He beats the rap until two years later he's picked up again for the same crime. This time his wife testifies against him which sends him to life inprisonment. Enter Betty Anne (Hilary Swank), a poor single mother, but with a moral conscientious made of iron, who believes whole-heartedly of her brother’s innocence, something even Kenny seems to doubt.

After realizing she just doesn’t have enough money to pay a lawyer, she decides to go to law school in order to represent Kenny herself. She's fighting for justice both in and out school as well as raising a family. It takes two decades before vital evidence can come to light which might just astonishingly get Kenny out of prison. You’ll have to watch to see what happens.

The timing of all this is important. It was the mid 90’s when DNA evidence first became influential. We even get to see Peter Gallagher play Barry Scheck, the diminutive lawyer on OJ Simpson's trial of the century, who used DNA evidence to get a real murderer off – go figure. Maybe his switch to the side of the right and just, was in response to his manipulative work with OJ.

If this weren’t all true, I’d find it a contrived, unbelievable and overly righteous John Grisham-type story. The idea that Betty Anne could even afford to go to law school let alone get Kenny a lawyer is ridiculous, but it happened. And so knowing this is true we have to accept this as plausible, right?

In many ways some Grisham-ness might have served the film better. Goldwyn stays as far away from salacious melodrama as possible, telling a mostly minimalist and contained story considering the long time frame involved. As such there’s a cable-tv HBO feel to this, not particularly cinematic or big screen worthy. The threat of Betty Anne’s commitment is slight. We’re supposed to feel that her family and her kids are at stake, but everyone is just so well put together we know, no matter what, they will be OK in the end.

Same with Kenny, who is in prison, but exhibits such extreme self-loathing and self-destructive behaviour prison might just be the best place for him. We rarely see him in pain or depression in prison. If anything, he almost seems to enjoy the camraderie.

What sizzles is the procedure of Betty-Anne’s investigation and the big picture journey frmo start to end. It’s turnkey lawyer plotting, Betty Anne digging into old files, revisiting old witnesses and such. I couldn’t help but think of Zodiac, which is the ultimae epitome of criminal procedurals. Conviction is character-based Zodiac. Goldwyn takes his time to show the details of the case, which is fun stuff, but he neither aspires for Zodiac, nor Reversal of Fortune, not even CSI.

Goldwyn pays most of his attention to Ms. Swank and her character Betty Anne. Her journey from lowly single mom to star lawyer is inspiring, and sole reason why this film, despite it’s faults, succeeds.

Conviction is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

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