Why this film?: Because even people who weren’t psyched by Rockwell steamrolling the televised awards spoke fondly of this performance, and since I trusted those people, this seemed like the place to go.
The film: Conviction is the kind of film that makes you root for it, makes you want to root for it, even as you can’t help noticing its flaws. For sure, the story of Betty Anne Waters spending sixteen years to almost single-handedly prove that her brother did not commit the first-degree murder of a neighbor is the kind of Herculean feat that deserves to be lauded. But, like headlines about kids making thousands of dollars to fund medical procedures or funerals for family members, it’s the kind of that invites loads of critique about the of the systems in place that would force such a massive effort on the parts of the people being celebrated. Director Tony Goldwyn is admirably in step with Betty Anne’s point of view, but to the degree that he doesn’t, perhaps can’t ever suggest that Kenny might be guilty and Betty is spending these years working to seal his fate rather than exonerate him. Nor does he step away far enough to interrogate a police force and legal system that would have allowed this mistake to happen, even skimping over the scene of Betty Anne confronting the officer who was responsible for framing her brother. The limited scope doesn’t hold up if you think about it for too long once it ends, or even during several sequences, but within those limitations Conviction is utterly compelling. If Goldwyn can be criticized for barely seeing a world outside his lead character’s head, he’s just as responsible for creating an environment that allows all of his actors to contribute sharp and specific characterizations that feel connected to the material. Conviction’s flaws and its assets point to a startling amount of sincerity towards doing this story justice instead of coming across solely as awards bait, and though it flirts heavily with being an acting showcase and an Erin Brockovich knock-off, it still emerges in its own, minor-key and palpably incomplete way as a tribute to one woman’s endless determination and a sibling bond that few people could ever dream of boasting.
In fact, the push-pull between Conviction’s best and worst elements is arguably it’s greatest source of tension. Because Goldwyn draws more momentum out of when Betty Anne will inevitably free her brother as opposed to if she will, and because that when is framed so optimistically, the long term narrative is never very suspenseful. The movies lives or dies on a scene-by-scene basis, and what’s surprising is that Conviction stays at about the same level of quality its entire run time. It lacks the palpable ups and downs that make The Black Dahlia such a vexing and hypnotic experience, instead operating on a slightly higher average and tinier but no less affecting changes in quality. The actors consistently elevate the script even as the questions the film isn’t asking keep poking through the seams, disrupting our viewing experience to make us wish the film was a little tougher.
So what questions are the film avoiding? For one, it absolutely refuses to consider the idea that Kenny might have actually killed Katharina Bow. Betty Anne is admirably unwavering in believing that her brother is innocent, but the film is too caught up in her head to even suggest that he might be guilty. Sam Rockwell’s performance is the only source of tension in this regard, playing scenes in court and in jail that could plausibly be prescribed to either a murderer who doesn’t want to shatter his sister’s hopes or a wronged man moved and saddened by the lengths his sister is going to free him. It’s enough for us to pause in the few scenes anyone pushes against Betty Anne’s tunnel vision, opening the possibility he might be guilty even if the film never really pretends that that’s possible. The idea that she can overcome such insurmountable odds is challenged more often than his guilt, but again, it’s never really in doubt that she will eventually emerge triumphant no matter how long it takes or how strong her opponents are.
The other big gap in Conviction’s portrayal of the case is a surprising lack of interrogation into the systems that falsely imprisoned Kenny and forced Betty Anne to take on a byzantine legal system with virtually no help from any originally involved in the case, and a lack of perspective on what prison life is like for Kenny. The film is mercifully devoid of a bad apple narrative surrounding the officer who framed Kenny for murder, focusing its attention on dismantling the false evidence and speaking with the witness threatened into testifying for the prosecution. But while the sequences allowing the two witnesses – Kenny’s wife and a mistress he had around the time of the murder – to release their own pain and cooperate as they see fit are affecting and contribute fully to the narrative, they never quite shake the feeling that Conviction should be focusing more of its attention at Officer Nancy Taylor instead of evoking her as an offscreen menace. Betty Anne confronts her only once in the present, after learning that Taylor had fabricated DNA evidence against her brother, and the scene is too short to function as anything except a rejoinder from a genuinely unreliable source trying to convince Betty Anne that she has wasted her life. There is no interrogation of this woman’s action beyond her own belief that Kenny is guilty, and no other officers involved in the case are given a voice despite both witnesses saying that Taylor had a deputy present when she threatened them. It’s one thing for a film to be bashfully unwilling to confront the forces that have altered its protagonist’s lives forever, and it’s another to keep the impact of that change on the most impacted character to such a peripheral degree. Aside from an early attempted suicide and a new way of trimming his hair, Kenny’s stay in prison almost seems to be in limbo, a princess in a tower whose time there isn’t illustrated. Crown Heights, another film that’s even more weirdly unwilling to indict the police for framing the wrong man – even going so far to ignore as to underplay the racial dynamics of the case – at least shows what almost twenty years in prison did to Colin Warner. Kenny Waters gets none of this consideration, instead treated as a constant that Betty Anne must strive to reunite with.
By underplaying the severity of all potential obstacles, the film occasionally has trouble getting across the enormity of Betty Anne’s actions and the siblings’ devotion to each other. The film goes to great lengths to capture the strength of Betty Anne and Kenny’s bonds to each other, as do Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell in rendering their relationship, but Conviction spends too much time treating her plan of attack as something any sibling would do that the moments when it underscores that this isn’t the case come off as discordant, as if the film itself isn’t entirely aware of how much Betty Anne has sacrificed for her brother regardless of whether she’s doing the right thing. Again, this is mainly symptomatic of Goldwyn attaining his vision so fully to his protagonist’s perspective, but it’s still strange to see her campaign treated mostly as durrigur. A late-film scene where her sons eventually decide that they would do for each other what their mother did for Kenny winds up playing as truncated because the film has so little distance from its heroine. Especially after the youngest and most sympathetic son describes going to such actions as “throwing my life away” for his brother, a slip of the tongue that isn’t negatively framed in and of itself, but the look of concern on Betty Anne’s face is upsetting from a perspective of viewer sympathy and frankly underexplored after she asks her son if he really thinks she threw her life away before quickly accepting him saying he didn’t mean it. In the almost two decades it took for Betty Anne Waters to get a law degree and free her brother from prison she got a divorce, seemingly lost primary custody of her children, and suffered academic and professional setbacks, yet it’s almost hard to recall the scant amount of attention these storylines received compared to Betty’s work to becoming a lawyer and her investigation into Kenny’s case. Conviction itself seems as unmoored as Betty Anne does by her son’s remarks, so impressed and in awe of her that the film is completely terrified to consider the sacrifices she’s made. The omission of Kenny’s death roughly six months after being exonerated, dying from complications after hitting his head from a great fall further illustrates Conviction’sunwillingness to poke into the darker elements of its own narrative.
Still, for all that Conviction fails or refuses to see in the story it’s telling, it does an impressive job within the boundaries it’s imposed on itself. If the compliment sounds too backhanded to be sincere, it’s worth stressing what a watchable and impressive film Convictionis, building power as it progresses. Goldwyn’s style doesn’t impose a lot of visuals to latch on to, but he’s able to tell the story with a simplicity and economy that suits its characters and setting just fine, fully earning the optimism and belief that everything will work out in the end it shares with Betty Anne. There’s also an impressive grip on the passage of time, conveying the wear and tear of sixteen years as it skips over huge chunks of time with little fanfare. Early hopscotching between Betty in law school, Kenny’s trial, and the two as children aren’t as well-coordinated as they might be, but once the film stays in the present it’s able to move forward at a healthy clip, covering a lot of ground in short scenes with strong connective tissue to each other. If the film never really commits to the idea that Kenny is guilty, it still proves itself a remarkable character study of an unbreakable sibling bond that never wavers even in its darkest moments.
Best of all is that Goldwyn has fostered an incredibly hospitable environment for his actors, creating room for two truly great performances and allowing the whole cast to play and sustain multiple emotional beats in their scenes while carving out full and consistent characterizations. Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell are completely convincing as brother and sister, conveying decades of history together and making clear what’s special about their relationship that would inspire her to go to the lengths that she does. The evocation of The Black Dahlia earlier on only serves to highlight how fully Swank has clicked into the role, wearing Betty Anne’s stubbornness and kindness and lapses in self-determination so easily without ever getting the sense that she’s begging for the audience for sympathy. You almost wonder if her performance would play even better if the film was more distanced from Betty Anne’s headspace, giving itself and us enough distance to grasp how much she is and isn’t considering about Kenny’s chances of being freed and her own odds of success. Rockwell is able to complicate our sense of Kenny without betraying his sister’s crusade or Conviction as a whole, and his absolute joy upon being exonerated is even more affecting for the purity of his emotion. He’s charismatic and likeable, wearing his more repellent traits with the same casual appeal as his affection for his sister and his family. Their bond is the heart of the movie, and it’s in their scenes that film achieves its loveliest and saddest moments. Bailee Madison and Tobias Campbell are equally impressive in the film’s flashbacks to their childhood, evoking the same kind of love, friendship, and co-dependence amidst harsh circumstances that Desreta Jackson and Akousa Busia achieved in the introductory scenes of The Color Purple. Elsewhere Minnie Driver, Juliette Lewis, Peter Gallagher, Ari Graynor, Melissa Leo, Clea Duvall, and Karen Young all contribute memorable performances orbiting Swank’s, making the film all the more specific and alive for the textures they bring. It’s because of the performers that Conviction is so engaging, making the stakes palpable without violating Goldwyn’s vision of how he wants to tell this story.
So yes, Conviction is the kind of lightweight film that doesn’t hold up powerfully to much pressure. One wonders if this is the kind of story that benefits much from being lightweight at all, or if it should look farther than its heroine’s nose. But within those sharply limited objectives Conviction winds up telling a powerful story about one woman’s determination to prove her brother innocent and celebrates the inherent goodness of that action, finding room to give all of its characters a perspective on what’s happening and allowing its actors to contribute fully to the script. It’s perhaps the very best version of a story that speaks as much to what it isn’t saying as what it is, disposable in some ways but valuable in others, and incredibly easy to root for. One hopes it eventually builds up a good life for itself on TNT, somewhere that it can be watched and rooted for without asking too much of your attention, although it’ll hopefully earn it. It’s got two great performances, a terrific ensemble, and the kind of little guy against the system victory that deserves to be recognized. Sure it could be deeper, but what’s not to like?
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