An inspiring true story is told with too many false notes and unexamined questions in “Conviction,” a dramatic account of Massachusetts woman Betty Anne Waters’ extraordinary 18-year crusade to overturn the guilty verdict that sent her brother to prison. Although fiercely committed performances by Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell provide director Tony Goldwyn’s film with a core of emotional integrity, a less heavy-handed, more informative approach would have served them and the audience better. Oct. 15 release is nonetheless one of the most marketable titles on Fox Searchlight’s slate, with especially broad appeal for the coveted heartland audience.
When not busy bartending and raising her two kids, Betty Anne (Swank) works hard toward her law degree in hopes of exonerating her brother, Kenny (Rockwell), currently serving a life sentence without parole for the 1980 stabbing death of a woman in Ayer, Mass. Pamela Gray’s screenplay flashes back to the murder investigation, spearheaded by a cop (Melissa Leo) determined to nail Kenny, and the trial, during which two ex-girlfriends of the defendant come forward with damning testimony.
A wild party-animal type with an occasional mean streak, Kenny has been imprisoned since 1983 but has always maintained his innocence, and Betty Anne’s decision to further her education (which requires her to first complete high school and college) is merely the latest sacrifice in a relationship full of them. Lest the viewer fail to grasp the closeness of their bond, the film offers cloying glimpses of young Kenny (Tobias Campbell) and young Betty Anne (Bailee Madison), portrayed as wee boxcar children constantly bailing each other out of minor scrapes.
One way to immediately improve “Conviction” would be to eliminate these over-directed childhood flashbacks and provide a fuller, more detailed examination of the trial proceedings, which the film rushes through as if they were a minor inconvenience, to the detriment of its plausibility. Likewise, the moment Betty Anne consciously decides to return to school, in the mid-’90s, is never properly dramatized or even explained, leaving the viewer to wonder whether it wouldn’t be less costly, in terms of time and money, if she simply hired a lawyer. Even simple scenes depicting the toll of Betty Anne’s busy schedule on her family life — the dissolution of her marriage, a missed fishing trip — feel derivative and inauthentic.
Though she struggles to keep up with her coursework, Betty Anne eventually passes the Bar exam. With the help of loyal chum Abra (a wonderful Minnie Driver) and star attorney Barry Scheck (Peter Gallagher), she sets out to find the missing evidence from the trial and perform the DNA tests that will hopefully prove Kenny’s innocence. Meanwhile, her regular visits with her brother in prison swing erratically from excitement to despair, as every victory is greeted by an almost immediate setback. These sibling tete-a-tetes represent the heart of the film, and Goldwyn (TV’s “Dexter” and “Damages”) wisely grants his leads as much screen time together as possible.
Swank, adopting a New England accent (like most of the cast), exhibits working-class grit and great maternal warmth in one of her stronger roles since “Million Dollar Baby.” Rockwell, whose manic physical energy always seems in danger of spilling out of the frame, cannily makes Kenny come across as both a likable hoot and a possible threat; he never pushes too hard even when going scarily over the top. Also making memorable impressions are Ari Graynor, as the daughter Kenny hasn’t seen since she was a child, and Juliette Lewis, flirting with white-trash caricature as one of Kenny’s incriminating old flames.
As with most underdog sagas, the film’s triumph-over-adversity thrust eventually takes on its own momentum, catering expertly to the viewer’s desire to see justice served. While “Conviction” wouldn’t exist if Betty Anne Waters’ mission hadn’t ultimately been successful, the film’s where-are-they-now end titles conspicuously avoid mentioning that Kenny Waters died Sept. 19, 2001, only six months after being released from prison.
Tech credits are strong, with Michigan-based sets standing in for rural Massachusetts. Given the often confusing welter of flashbacks, onscreen dates helping the viewer keep track of timeframes wouldn’t have hurt.