Director Tony Goldwyn’s “Conviction,” about a woman who becomes a lawyer solely to overturn her brother’s guilty sentence for murder, instantly recalled Dr. Halberstoddter’s dictum concerning films that are based on actual stories. He addressed the issue in his Problems of Reality class, a core requirement at Olde Ivy Film Criticism College.
It was sophomore year. Peering from behind the lectern, the tweed-clad, thick-spectacled professor expounded in his precise, Viennese accent: “If it is a true story, then the art must first be absolutely dedicated to the veracity. There can be no real surprise. But ah, if a previously untold twist is woven into the subtext, then there can be a novel freshness.”
By that criterion, the slow-moving film is partially successful. Because Betty Anne Waters, expertly portrayed by Hilary Swank, ostensibly devoted her entire being to the crusade, it came at an expense to her marriage and parenting. This poses a philosophical question that could keep the brows of a university ethics class furrowed for a semester.
While Betty Anne’s quest makes for a reliable enough, feature-length version of what you might see in any of TV’s cold case detective serials, it’s this sibling devotion that’s most bound to give the viewer pause. The subsequent fallout slyly asks where one’s ultimate responsibility should lie. To his credit, the filmmaker only hints his opinion.
Granted, all sorts of accomplishments stem from a multitude of stimuli. There have been dictators who conquered entire continents because someone once looked at them cross-eyed or they were sickly in childhood. But when the subject seems to be an everyday person and the cause and effect are so directly linked, it raises the fascination level.
It’s the sheer single-mindedness of it all that sets the imagination in motion. Gosh, she really did this. While “Magnificent Obsession” (1954) melodramatically chronicles Robert Merrick’s (Rock Hudson) return to medical school just so he can cure Helen Phillips’s (Jane Wyman) blindness, that it’s fiction actually lessens the outlandishness.
Fine evocations of the two protagonists in “Conviction,” the only folks who, curiously enough, seem to matter, help ameliorate many of the clichés that have been worked into a screenplay bereft of engaging dialogue. Much of what is said is purpose driven. We surmise that a lot of the little business between the lines is pure poetic license.
But a close-up, three-quarter profile of Miss Swank’s Betty Anne, framed in slight shadow at a crucial juncture, portrays a lonely anguish worthy of Picasso. The actress repeatedly does with her face what the script cannot. Likewise, Sam Rockwell as Kenny Waters, the prodigal brother in question, manages an augmenting intrigue of his own.
While Kenny may not be guilty of murder, he is undeniably a loose cannon, a quality evidenced early on when he starts a bar fight. Fair or not, it’s no wonder the local gendarmes regularly round him up as one of the usual suspects. Flashbacks convincingly detail the poverty-stricken, dysfunctional background from which he and sis emanated.
The pop psychology in these expository scenes dramatically explains the strong, sibling bond of survival in which they find refuge from a mostly absent, ineffective father and a shameless, slatternly mother. Trespassing in empty houses when they can, they build a fantasy home they one day hope to occupy. It’ll be located on a lake named for them.
Other shortcomings aside, Pamela Gray’s script subtly probes the power of blood relationship, of lives so inextricably tied together that they must open the door to speculation. Betty Anne’s great devotion encompasses complete certainty of her brother’s innocence. We wonder if it’s to a fault. Could she possibly ever believe him culpable?
Ironically, blood also plays a crucial part in Kenny’s hoped for vindication. During the sixteen or so years of Betty Anne’s journey to free him, DNA research advances. Now, evidence can be retrospectively used. And as a result, old cases are being reopened, with Barry Scheck’s Innocence Project leading the charge. Naturally, our girl contacts him.
It gets a bit more complicated, which is exhaustively related in twists and turns that make the movie fifteen minutes longer than necessary. This includes, but is not limited to, a problematic policewoman and a new attorney general looking to make a reputation. These plot wrinkles might have been effective if we didn’t know the true tale’s outcome.
This fact continually arises to haunt the film’s entertainment value. And while indeed Hollywood must embellish, the uncertainties it causes here instill a wary antsiness in us. All the same, if Goldwyn had fully capitalized on the psychologically intriguing aspect of Betty Anne’s Antigone-like loyalty, it would make a better case for seeing “Conviction.”
“Conviction,” rated R, is a Fox Searchlight Pictures release directed by Tony Goldwyn and stars Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell and Melissa Leo. Running time: 107 minutes
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