AUSTIN FILM FESTIVAL 2010
By Don Simpson | October 15, 2010
Director: Tony Goldwyn
Writer: Pamela Gray
Starring: Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Minnie Driver, Juliette Lewis, Melissa Leo, Drew Smith
Kenny Waters (Sam Rockwell) is the local wise-ass and troublemaker of an otherwise quaint and peaceful rural lower-middle-class Massachusetts town (Kenny is the type of guy who dances at a local bar with his baby daughter, then gets into a bar brawl and buys a shot for the unsuspecting victim of his headbutt, then performs a striptease on stage with the cover band); therefore when a local woman is brutally murdered in her trailer-home, Kenny is the very first (and, apparently, the only) suspect to be arrested. Upon making some snarky and sexist comments to the arresting officer, Nancy Taylor (Melissa Leo), Kenny unknowingly condemns himself to a life sentence without parole — though it takes Officer Taylor another two years (during which time Kenny is set free) to pile up enough evidence (Kenny’s blood type matches blood that was found at the crime scene) and wrangle some of Kenny’s ex-girlfriends (Clea DuVall and Juliette Lewis — both playing white trash caricatures) to testify against him.
At the time of Kenny’s conviction, his sister Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank) is an uneducated bar waitress and a married mother of two boys. Once Kenny is shipped off to prison, Betty Anne commences a crusade — passing her GED, earning a college diploma, graduating from law school and passing the Bar exam — to prove he is innocent. Dutifully dedicating her entire life to Kenny’s cause, Betty Anne sacrifices her marriage and loses custody of her two boys (Owen Campbell and Conor Donovan). Now that shows conviction! Too bad most of these years are glossed over into what seems more like a PowerPoint presentation than a fully fleshed-out plot. This is one of the many instances in which director Tony Goldwyn (The Last Kiss) and screenwriter Pamela Gray (Music of the Heart) try to squeeze way too much information into too little time, thus drastically reducing any emotional impact Betty Anne’s sacrifices should have on the audience.
Quite surprisingly, Goldwyn and Gray never allow us the time to contemplate the simple fact that Kenny’s conviction prompts Betty Anne to become a well-educated and empowered woman. Betty Anne evolves from a working-class woman from a tumultuous childhood during which she never even finished high school (via a slew of tedious flashbacks that are overly simplistic and explanatory, we learn that Betty Anne [Bailee Madison] and Kenny [Tobias Campbell] had an absentee father and a neglectful mother; shuffled through a never-ending series of foster homes, their childhood was practically Dickensian) to becoming a lawyer and valiant heroine. (The real Betty Anne Waters is still working as a lawyer for wrongfully convicted prisoners.)
This is the type of overtly sentimental Hollywood film that we have come to expect a happy ending (thus diluting any and all narrative tension); thanks to the pro-bono assistance of a celebrity wrongful-conviction expert — Barry Scheck (Peter Gallagher) from the Innocence Project — and some helpful DNA evidence, Kenny is eventually exonerated.
Conviction is based on the true story of Betty Anne and Kenneth Waters but what the film does not reveal is that six months after his release, Kenny died. (According to the Associated Press, he “fractured his skull when he fell from a 15-foot wall while taking a shortcut to his brother’s house after a dinner with his mother.”) Conviction is obviously meant to be a feel good success story (the kind that proves that there is always hope despite the apparent odds), not a testament that life is all but a cruel joke. Call me morbid, but I think the ending to Kenny’s real life narrative would have made Conviction a much more interesting (and daring) film. Then again, how many Hollywood filmmakers are truly brave enough to end a film like Conviction on such an absurdly dismal note? As far as Hollywood is concerned, Conviction must be an inspirational and uplifting tale — there are no other formulas available for this plot.
All in all, Goldwyn takes a few too many dramatic shortcuts and abides all too closely to preexisting formulas and conventions. There is no narrative depth or subtext; what you see is exactly what you get. The only real chance that Goldwyn takes is in casting Rockwell against type (Swank is cast in an all too predictable and standard role for her) — besides appearing weighed down by heavily-caked old-age makeup and a horrendous hair piece, Rockwell succeeds in his meaty dramatic scenes. Rockwell’s best scenes, however, are when he is granted artistic license to do what he does best — go nuts. Despite a splattering of some slightly inconsistent New England accents, Conviction is well-acted. Rockwell seems to be the only actor having fun, but Swank plays such a wonderfully intense and strong-willed lead female (what she does best).
Nonetheless, I exited the theater with the very same icky feeling I had after watching The Blind Side — like The Blind Side, Conviction is pure unabashed Oscar fodder — the only difference is that I actually like the actors and their performances in Conviction. Being that Rockwell was shamefully overlooked last year for his Oscar-worthy performance in Moon, I will not balk if he is nominated this year for Conviction; but as far as Swank is concerned, she already has two Oscars (one of which, I will grant, she deserved — for Boys Don’t Cry) so she should give someone else a chance.