Monday, October 18, 2010

Movie Review: Conviction

Conviction ** ½
Directed by:
Tony Goldwyn.
Written By: Pamela Gray.
Starring: Hilary Swank (Betty Anne Waters), Sam Rockwell (Kenny Waters), Minnie Driver (Abra Rice), Melissa Leo (Nancy Taylor), Karen Young (Elizabeth Waters), Loren Dean (Rick), Clea DuVall (Brenda Marsh), Juliette Lewis (Roseanna Perry), Peter Gallagher (Barry Scheck), Ari Graynor (Mandy Marsh).

Conviction is a standard issue “inspirational” real life drama that is admittedly based on one hell of a true life story. Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank) is so convinced that he brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell) is innocent of the murder than he has been sentenced to life in prison for, that she decides to complete her GED, go to University to get her BA, then attend law school, all so that she can represent him, because none of the other lawyers he has had are any good. She loses her marriage because of her obsession, her kids, who still love her but want a more stable home life, opt to move in with their dad. She struggles part time for 18 years to get through all of her schooling. And she never once wavers in her commitment – or at least the movie tells us she never did, even if I suspect that in real life, at times she had to ask herself if all of this is worth it.

Betty Anne is played by Hilary Swank, in what most be described as one of her best roles. It isn’t that she is terrific in the movie, but that she plays it exactly the way it is written to be played (that of a selfless saint pretty much), and it is the type of role she excels at. Despite her two Oscar wins (for performances that were admittedly pretty damn great), most of the time, Swank seems uncomfortable or mannered on screen. But she does excel, unlike many actress, in playing lower class characters – and here she could be described almost as a redneck (especially in those early scenes set in the 1980s where she has the big hair), but Swank fills the role nicely. Sam Rockwell is even better as her brother Kenny – but then he has the showier role – being the constant charmer at the beginning of the movie, even going as far as mocking the police, and then later after years in jail proclaiming his innocence, he gets to rage against the system. Rockwell, always a good actor, makes the most of the role.

Yet Conviction seems oddly lacking in passion. This is after all a movie about love and determination – a woman who essentially gives her life so that she can free the brother she loves so much, and believes in when no one else does. Why then, does the film feel so by the book, and why aside from the occasional flash by Sam Rockwell, does no one in the film seem all that passionate about anything? Conviction does it job well enough, I guess. The supporting cast hits so nice notes – Minnie Driver is entertaining as Swank’s friend who never shuts up, Melissa Leo is appropriately evil as the cop who has it out for Kenny, and Juliette Lewis delights in going over the top as the trailer trash witness who makes everyone else in the film seem refined by comparison.

Yet I missed that feeling in the film, which to be felt oddly cold at times. Perhaps it’s because there is never any real doubt in the film that Kenny is innocent, and will eventually be freed. Perhaps it’s because the film whips through that more than a decade of Betty Anne working on getting through school so quickly that we never really feel her plight. Whatever the reason, I cannot really pinpoint it, but Conviction should be a rousing, heartfelt drama, but instead it feels kind of flat. It does what it does good enough, and always did keep me interested, but the film is sadly lacking something vital to make it more than just another cookie cutter inspirational drama. For a movie based on an incredible true story, the movie doesn’t quite ring true – and I think it’s because they never really get to know the characters outside of their actions as it relates to this case. It’s too bad, because this should have been a hell of lot more compelling that it turns out to be.

Note: I learned after I saw the movie that in real life, Kenny Waters died six months after being released from prison in an accident where he fell off a wall getting to his mother’s house. Why doesn’t the film mention this, at least in its ending scroll where it tells us what happened to Betty Anne and other characters? Perhaps because if Kenny died so soon after being released, it would undercut the inspirational storyline, but the filmmakers missed a real opportunity here. Adding this could have helped add a level of tragic irony to the story, and made the film more interesting as a result. I have never had a real problem with filmmakers changing true life stories to make it more dramatic, but here is an example where they changed a true life story to make it LESS dramatic, and that just seems odd to me.

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