TIFF10 REVIEW: Conviction [2010]

“She’s the other old lady in my class”

After steady television work and three forgettable romantic features, actor-turned-director Tony Goldwyn has taken a giant leap forward in his progression as the man behind the scenes. Delving into the true-life story of Betty Anne Waters, via a script by Pamela Gray—who also wrote his debut—Conviction premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival with some Oscar buzz behind it. With a plotline concerning a woman’s drive to free her brother—in jail on a life sentence for murder—by going to college and eventually law school to represent him herself; lead performances by an underappreciated yet always great Sam Rockwell and two-time Best Actress winner Hilary Swank; and the steady hand of Goldwyn to steer it all out of made-for-TV conventions, I can’t say I would be surprised to see the film’s name up for a few awards come next winter. It may not be the greatest piece of cinema, nor is it without flaws, but you can’t ignore the fact it is exactly the type of feel-good crowd pleaser audiences flock to see and voters love to reward.

The Waters family would never have been called upstanding citizens in their small town, but no one would say any could be capable of murder either. Kenny (Rockwell) was always suspect number one whenever something bad happened, so the fact he was brought in on suspicion wasn’t too hard to fathom. His release appears like a routine occurrence. He laughs and jokes with the police force while also attempting to diffuse the situation with his arresting officer, Melissa Leo’s Nancy Taylor. She has a chip on her shoulder, though, and will not give up the fact he is the best shot at solving the case. Kenny is a punk, there is no question there, but he loves his family, especially his young daughter. But a past incident involving the deceased is brought up as cause—wherein a very young Kenny and Betty Anne broke into her house to fantasize living away from their white trash parents—and, as such, two years later at the funeral for the siblings’ grandfather, he was officially taken in as prime suspect, court an inevitability. With unexpected perjury and bloodwork before the days of DNA testing, he never stood a chance.

But, while everyone wrote him off, knowing his criminal past and temper, assuming he must have done what he was found guilty for, Betty Anne (Swank) refused to believe her loving, misguided brother could commit such an atrocity. All around her were pleas to forget him, accept his fate and move on with her life. The dedication she showed standing by him for two decades, hoping he survived to see her not only pass the Bar, but also find evidence to exonerate him, caused her world to fall apart. Her husband leaves, unable to deal with the wife he married no longer emotionally present; her children feel neglected as second on the totem poll behind their uncle, loving their mom, but slowly becoming more estranged as the years go by; and her only friends seem to be co-workers and classmates—Minnie Driver’s headstrong Abra the closest bond, willing to help her cause. The road is tough and filled with hardships like a probationary period due to grades, lack of sleep causing late papers and assignments, and late nights waitressing to stay afloat. Working towards his release is what keeps her going.

This relationship between Swank and Rockwell is stronger than anything in the film. Partially told with flashbacks—the film begins with Betty Anne visiting Kenny, already tattooed and gray with his Jesse James goatee—we watch them grow up right despite their upbringing. Taken to foster care due to parental negligence, making bad choices, and not getting the education they should, you have to respect the sort of moral, compassionate code they do live by. Neither would be able to survive without the other, whether he was in jail or free. The fact Kenny sees the constant progress of his sister, appreciating the love she expresses and the betterment of her life a degree will give, lets him wake up every morning. Does he hope she can do what she promises? I’m sure he does, but I don’t think he agreed to no longer attempt suicide for the chance to be free. By staying alive he enabled Betty Anne to strive for more, to work harder than she ever did. Her evolution as a woman becomes his greatest reward. Without her there is nothing—no hope, no daughter, no other reason to breathe.

Goldwyn should be credited for adding a professionalism that keeps the visuals from relying on the generic tropes Conviction could easily have fallen into. He knows how to get his cast to give top-notch performances throughout. Swank is great as Waters, embodying both her frustration and never die attitude. And while she is onscreen for most of the film, her role alone wouldn’t have saved it from wearing its conventionality on its sleeve. Rockwell’s delicate psychology and constant roller coaster of emotion with numerous false hopes of release are crucial to the audience believing his innocence and truly wanting him to be set free; Leo’s stern, no nonsense demeanor allows her to be the villain when in fact the system itself is truly the antagonist; comedic actor Ari Graynor gets the dramatic gravitas perfect for a daughter who grew up thinking her dad was a killer; and Juliette Lewis, in a very small but powerful role as an ex-girlfriend of Rockwell, helps get our bearings as far as the kind of community on display. The film may be a tad too long, even giving us an emotional release before the end, dragging us back for another thirty minutes or legalities, but I was invested throughout, riding the ups and downs, awaiting the outcome we know is on the horizon.

Conviction 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

[1] Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell in CONVICTION; Photo by Ron Batzdorff
[2] L-R: Sam Rockwell and Melissa Leo in CONVICTION; Photo by Ron Batzdorff
[3] Hilary Swank stars as Betty Anne Waters in Fox Searchlight Pictures’ Conviction (2010)

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