Tony Goldwyn’s Conviction is exactly what you would expect: a high-minded, fact-based, super-earnest, drama-thon, with an attempt at an uplifting, soul-stirring ending. That is both what’s wrong with the film and why it will appeal strongly to viewers who like their drama thick and earnest, and believe that affecting a working-class accent is the ultimate test of an actor’s ability. I cannot say that Conviction is a bad film as such. It’s competently made. It’s well acted, though not outstandingly so—despite the Oscar buzz surrounding Sam Rockwell, who is good, but has been better. I knew what was going to happen from the trailers—because I’ve been to the movies a few times—and that’s exactly what the movie delivers. I wasn’t moved, my soul wasn’t shaken, and I wasn’t uplifted. The best I can say is I mostly didn’t mind sitting through it.
In case you don’t know, the film is based on the story of Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank), a working-class mom whose brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell) is sent to prison for life without parole for a murder he claims he didn’t commit. Betty believes in his innocence, so she gets her GED and puts herself through college and law school in order to clear his name. Yes, it’s a remarkable tale of sibling devotion, but in the hands of screenwriter Pamela Gray and director Tony Goldwyn, I simply didn’t find it remarkable drama. The film is at a disadvantage, I admit, simply because the outcome is only going to surprise people who went to see Titanic (1997) and were shocked when the ship sank. Let’s face it, a movie like Conviction, which positions itself as an uplifting true story, isn’t about to deliver anything but a crowd-pleaser ending where virtue triumphs.
The central flaw with the film, from my perspective, is its lack of attention to the whole legal process that sends Kenny to jail; it also fails to establish any real connection between Betty’s law degree and getting Kenny’s conviction overturned. The way the film plays out, virtually every legal maneuver that comes into play is the work of Betty’s classmate Abra (Minnie Driver) or Project Innocence lawyer Barry Scheck (Peter Gallagher). Apart from setting things into motion, Betty’s major contribution lies in convincing a county employee to look for trial records that are thought to have been destroyed years earlier.
The movie seems to be afraid to get too involved in the legal side of things. Kenny’s original trial is given short shrift, and yet it’s presented as such an obvious railroading that it’s hard not to wonder why no one seemed to notice this at the time. My guess is that the filmmakers didn’t trust the audience to have the patience for anything but the broadest of broad strokes. At the same time, the film really wants to hammer home the bond between Betty and Kenny—to the extent of including some clunky childhood scenes that don’t really add much to the film. Still, that’s the tack they’ve chosen to take and it may work for some viewers. It certainly worked for Bold Life movie reviewer Marcianne Miller, who watched the film with me. She found it very engaging.
Personally, I saw an interesting story that felt like it had been smoothed out into a simplified, sanitized work that existed mostly to afford Swank and Rockwell a series of big dramatic scenes—though they’re largely the same basic scenes repeated—in order to court Oscar voters. (I think it stands a better chance of succeeding with Rockwell than Swank.) I also found the film’s ending, with its series of titles informing the viewer of what happened afterwards, to be disingenuous. I understand why the filmmakers chose not to tell the rest of Kenny’s story, but I think they ought to have let the movie stand on its own without the titles. I won’t give away what the film chooses to leave alone, but I will say I think it was handled poorly. Rated R for language and some violent images.