'Conviction'


It's a great story. But great storytelling? Not quite.

Plenty of people who see "Conviction" won't care, however.

They'll be uplifted by its fact-based account of a sister who dedicated her life to freeing a beloved brother unjustly convicted of a brutal murder.

But even if everything in the movie's utterly true, it doesn't ring so true, thanks -- or, more precisely, no thanks -- to the only-in-Hollywood contrivances that dilute the story's impact.

That "Conviction" generates as much dramatic power as it does, however, testifies to the inspiring nature of the story itself -- and to the conviction that stars Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell bring to their roles as hardscrabble, hard-luck siblings Betty Anne and Kenny Waters.

Growing up in small-town New England under the hardly watchful eye of a troubled, indifferent mother, Betty Anne and Kenny (played as children by Bailee Madison and Tobias Campbell) get into plenty of mischief, shoplifting candy from the grocery store and breaking into neighbor's houses.

Eventually, they're wrenched apart and placed in foster care. And while that may seem like the worst thing that could ever happen, there's worse in store.

That happens after they're all grown up -- not that Kenny (now played by Rockwell) has ever really grown up. He's still the same scapegrace, screwing up at regular intervals. Yet Betty Anne (Swank) knows that, despite all evidence to the contrary, he's not a bad guy.

Not even when he's arrested and charged with robbing -- and murdering -- a neighbor.

And not even when the testimony of his wife (Clea DuVall) and a highly suspect girlfriend (a memorably sleazy Juliette Lewis) puts Kenny behind bars for life. (And that's only because the death penalty's not in effect in their home state of Massachusetts.)

Betty Anne may be a high school dropout working at a local bar, but that won't stop her from proving Kenny's innocence.

All she has to do first is get her high school equivalency degree, put herself through college and earn a law degree -- even if it means sacrificing her marriage and some of the attention she otherwise might lavish on her children in the process.

It's an epic quest for justice -- one that consumed 18 years of Betty Anne's and Kenny's lives.

And while no one feature film could ever truly capture the full scope of Betty Anne's crusade for justice, "Conviction" doesn't really do full justice to its compelling characters.

Director Tony Goldwyn reunites with screenwriter Pamela Gray, who scripted his first (and in many ways, best) directorial effort, 1999's quietly heartfelt "A Walk on the Moon."

Too bad "Conviction" has a lot more in common with a second 1999 movie Gray scripted: "Music of the Heart," another fact-based tale that wasn't content to let the inspiring facts speak for themselves.

Time and again, "Conviction" seems determined to suffocate its dramatic urgency.

Let's start with hokey, only-in-Hollywood complications -- as when Betty Anne, on her way to take the bar exam, frantically searches for her law school ID -- that clog up the narrative flow. (As if we need to be manipulated into emotionally identifying with such dogged determination.)

"Conviction" also skims over Betty Anne's gritty, yet potentially gripping academic efforts, failing to capture the grueling, year-after-year process of putting herself through college and law school -- all while working and trying to raise a family.

And then there's Kenny's prison ordeal, which too often gets pushed into the background while "Conviction" tries to keep its multiple plotlines spinning, making room for the obligatory roadblocks and reverses -- and vivid supporting turns from Minnie Driver (providing sassy comic relief as Betty Anne's law school pal), Melissa Leo (all grim authority as a local cop who has it in for Kenny), Peter Gallagher (as a savvy New York lawyer who joins Betty Anne's crusade) and "Fringe's" Ari Graynor, delivering a poignant turn as Kenny's grown daughter, who isn't at all sure how she feels about her estranged father's possible release from prison.

And then there's Swank, who has repeatedly demonstrated (notably in her Oscar-winning "Boys Don't Cry" and "Million Dollar Baby" performances) her expertise at bringing dogged blue-collar fighters to life. Betty Anne Waters is no exception, and Swank blasts through the script's predictable passages with utter (dare we say it?) conviction -- and more than a touch of over-the-top fervor.

Even though "Conviction" is more Betty Anne's movie than Kenny's, however, Sam Rockwell's volatile, superbly calibrated portrayal may be the one element of "Conviction" that transcends the movie's conventionalities. A live wire who loves nothing more than dancing on the high wire -- even if it means, all too often, plummeting to the ground -- Kenny never quite figures out how to balance, let alone master, his bad-boy humor and his little-boy anger. Once he's behind bars, he's got all the time in the world to ponder that problem -- and all the others it has created for him through the years.

Lucky for him, his sister understands not only how but why he got that way.

Watching the two of them recall their shared heartache, past and present, gives "Conviction" the kind of simple intensity that makes the surrounding melodrama seem all the more manipulative and artificial.

Contact movie critic Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

 

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