Conviction (United States, 2010)October 13, 2010
Take a real-life feel-good story about personal heroism and use it as the basis for a generic screenplay. Lather on some prestige. Hire an Oscar-winning actress and a bunch of supporting performers with nominations on their resumes. Promote the hell out of it using words like "inspirational", "incredible", and "uplifting". What's the result? A Best Picture hopeful? Or a watered-down marriage between The Hurricane and Erin Brockovich? Perhaps both. Certainly, the true story behind Conviction is worthy of telling (although one could argue that a documentary presentation would be a better choice), but the resulting film is so bland and predictable in its rhythms that, excepting the participation of a couple of big-name actors, it would be at home on a second-tier cable channel. Conviction is watchable, certainly, and delivers the expected rush when the foregone conclusion arrives (the narrative trajectory is as formulaic as that of any romantic comedy), but any hard-hitting drama has been diluted and repackaged as something that will not stir lingering feelings. In terms of its overall emotional appeal, it's a little like an anorexic sibling to The Blind Side.
The script, written by Pamela Gray, adheres mostly to the historical record, at least in its broad strokes. The details, according to the precept that the facts should never get in the way of a good story, often become victim to the screenwriter's pen. What's left is part courtroom drama, part procedural, and part triumph over adversity. The chronology is not linear, featuring as it does a dizzying array of flashbacks-within-flashbacks, all designed to build sympathy for the main characters and provide background. The Hurricane did all of this with greater passion and urgency. Both movies are about innocent men achieving freedom after many years behind bars but, because of the combination of a better realized screenplay and a more sure filmmaking style, The Hurricane resonates with greater force.
The story starts in 1980 with the murder of Katharina Brow in Ayer, Massachusetts. Local police officer Nancy Taylor (Melissa Leo) makes up her mind that the culprit is the town's cut-up, Kenny Waters (Sam Rockwell). Although there's not enough evidence to take him to trial in 1980, the testimony of several eyewitnesses, which doesn't come to light until 1983, proves to be damning. With Kenny wrongfully imprisoned, his sister, Betty Anne (Hilary Swank), decides to go through all the schooling necessary to take the Bar and become a lawyer. Nearly 16 years later, after having lost her husband and her children (who are now living with their dad), Betty Anne achieves her goal. Aided by Barry Scheck (Peter Gallagher) from the Innocence Project and her friend Abra Rice (Minnie Driver), she attempts to locate the evidence from the trial so she can have DNA testing performed on the blood.
The difficulty for a film like Conviction is to make the journey worthwhile when the ending is known. It's a matter of the historical record that Kenny was released from prison after DNA tests (unavailable in 1983) exonerated him. His case is not unique - this has happened more than 200 times - but other feel-good aspects of the story (the fact that Massachusetts doesn't have a death penalty so he wasn't executed, his sister's crusade) make it more cinema-worthy than others. To a degree, Conviction achieves the aim of keeping the viewer involved in the story as it unfolds, but its pedestrian telling of the tale limits our investment in the characters. Subplots remain half revealed and there are several jarring jumps ahead in time that create a momentary sense of disorientation. The filmmakers surely made Conviction with the best of intentions, but the result is only moderately successful.
The strongest, most consistent performance is provided by Sam Rockwell, who displays a wide and convincing range of emotions. He also doesn't play Kenny like a choir boy wrongfully convicted. Kenny is a hard drinking, short tempered lout whose contributions to society are minimal. Hilary Swank, on the other hand, is surprisingly uneven as Betty Anne. Considering some of Swank's remarkable past acting (parts that have earned her two Oscars), it's disappointing to see such a by-the-numbers portrayal of this character. Betty Anne comes across as earnestness personified: a straightforward individual with little internal complexity, although that could be as much a fault of the script as of Swank's performance. Nevertheless, there's nothing about Betty Anne that grabs us, shakes us, and makes us want to root for this women with all of our energy. That's what Conviction needs, but the movie proves unable to provide it.
It's easy to damn a movie for what it doesn't do, but the problem with Conviction is that too much of what it accomplishes is done in a manner that's unremarkable. When I attend a movie billed as a feel-good true story about a sister's crusade to save her brother, I expect to leave the theater uplifted, not conflicted. As disposable entertainment, Conviction can make a case, but nothing in the story or its telling elevates it above that which has already been provided in other, better motion pictures.
Conviction (United States, 2010)
Cast: Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Minnie Driver, Peter Gallagher, Melissa Leo, Loren Dean, Juliette Lewis, Clea DuVall, Ari Graynor
Screenplay: Pamela Gray
Cinematography: Adriano Goldman
Music: Paul Cantelon
U.S. Distributor: Fox Searchlight