Conviction is precisely the type of Oscar-baiting true story studios like Fox Searchlight roll out every fall, starring Hilary Swank in the sort of role she latches onto each year in hopes of award show glory. Director Tony Goldwyn (The Last Kiss) is handed the enviable task of bringing cohesion to Pamela Gray’s fragmented script, which spans 20 years of the lives of Kenny and Betty Anne Waters.
The film unfolds in equal thirds courtroom procedural, family drama and investigative thriller. Gray seems unsure which events are the most pivotal in the lives of the Waters siblings, and it shows in the jumpy opening. Things fortunately straighten out as we move into a more linear narrative because this is a story so good it can practically tell itself.
Sam Rockwell is excellent in a performance surely modeled after Vanilla Ice circa The Surreal Life as the flannel-on-flannel wearing scumbag convicted of murder, prompting his sister (Swank) to go through law school so she can become her brother’s lawyer. It’s a long process that begins with a GED and her family life seems to have fallen apart along the way.
Betty Anne has forgotten many a fishing trip with her teenage boys and her marriage has succumbed to her obsession for proving her brother’s innocence. Between her countless emotional visits to prison she’s aided in her studies and eventually in her brother’s case by a new friend (Minnie Driver, much missed in recent years).
By the time she’s finally ready to take the bar exam, we’ve also reached the advent of the forensic evidence phenomenon, and Betty Anne sees DNA testing as the key to her brother’s release. So this is what CSI would be like if it were a period piece?
We never see Kenny explicitly tell his sister he’s innocent, leaving that tiny bit of doubt in the back of our minds. It adds a level of suspense and makes the film feel like more than what is an apparently predictable and inspirational true story.
But above all it is the cast, which also includes Peter Gallagher and Melissa Leo in small but vital roles, that separates Conviction from feeling like just another “movie of the week.” Juliette Lewis is particularly memorable in a powerful scene worthy of the white trash movie hall of fame, and Rockwell seems poised to finally receive the elusive attention he has deserved his entire career. He adds a lovable quality to his hot head with a heart of gold that makes the character more than just an archetype.