It’s been six years since Hilary Swank won an Oscar for her role in the fantastic Clint Eastwood film, Million Dollar Baby. Since then, she has either starred in weepy romantic tripe (P.S. I Love You) or movies where she tries so hard she’s practically begging for another award. Amelia was her last attempt and she failed. Her latest, Conviction, is much the same. The movie, though decent, won’t garner any Oscar buzz in the coming months and I’d be shocked to see Swank nominated for Best Actress after this over-the-top performance.
The movie is based on the inspiring true story of Betty Anne Waters (Swank), a woman who put herself through years of schooling to eventually earn a law degree and exonerate her brother, Kenny (Sam Rockwell), who had been in jail for 18 years for a murder he did not commit.
Betty Anne Waters is an amazing woman and I had the pleasure of meeting her prior to my screening of Conviction. After years of working through the legal system and failing to get her brother out of jail, she took it upon herself to enroll in a community college, earn her bachelors, then her masters, then finally her law degree, only to spend even more time tracking down past evidence in an attempt to take a DNA sample that would prove her brother’s innocence. She devoted her life to this cause, knowing only in her heart that Kenny was innocent. In a sad example of irony, he only went on to live six months after being released, accidentally falling off a wall and fracturing his skull.
However, this tragedy isn’t even in the movie. As Betty Anne said to me, that’s not what the movie is about. It’s about hope and love and a brother/sister bond that can’t be broken. It was about showing the importance of being a free man, not falling prey to the real life twist that followed. It’s this talk with Betty Anne that has my feelings for the movie so confused. Outside of a few small instances, everything in the film happened, but it all feels so contrived, like when they finally get the DNA evidence and prove his innocence, only to have his release refused by the claim that he can be still tried as an accomplice, thus prolonging the movie. While this no doubt occurred, it’s hard not to gawk at it with an exhausted sigh.
But that little voice in the back of my head kept telling me to give it a break. Besides, I was interested in what I was seeing, even if I was rolling my eyes a bit more than I had hoped. I’m fascinated with these types of stories and if you’re aware of Darryl Hunt, Rubin Carter or the West Memphis Three, chances are you are too.
But the movie critic in me finds too many faults with it to give it a break. It may be a remarkable true story, but it holds little dramatic weight. Given the 18 year time period, events are rushed through and the characters are given no time to develop. After her brother is convicted, Betty Anne’s life becomes consumed with the case, which distances her from her family, eventually causing her husband to leave her and her two sons to go live with him. I didn’t care because, frankly, she didn’t seem to. The emotion is all but missing.
I say all but missing because the small amount that does exist is overly dramatic, partially thanks to Swank’s hit-and-miss performance, but mostly due to the heavy handed script. Instead of telling this story meaningfully, it’s Hollywood-ized for modern audiences who can’t handle intelligent, thought provoking material.
Nevertheless, the wit is there and Sam Rockwell once again gives an outstanding performance. It’s not that this film is bad. It’s just so middle of the road. For every one thing it does right, it does two wrong. The story of Betty Anne Waters and her brother is incredible, but there are plenty of interesting ways to hear it. Conviction, unfortunately, isn’t one of them.
Conviction receives 2.5/5