Yes, the title has two meanings, but that just makes it doubly obvious. Don’t expect much in the way of poetic nuance here, for there is only belaboring: This conviction refers both to the guilty verdict that put a man in prison for many years, and to the certitude with which his sister then devoted her life to proving his innocence.
It actually happened, which means that any movie about it might too easily seem like a TV movie. This one does. It has the advantage of Hilary Swank playing to her Academy-approved strengths, as a regular gal of modest means (unless you count her great fortitude) who rises to a real challenge. And it has the second advantage of Sam Rockwell, an actor with an excellent sense of proportion and a gift for natural displays of conflicted conscience. But one disadvantage is that it almost doesn’t matter who plays “Conviction”‘s blandly characterized, likable-underdog leads. Another, greater problem is an old familiar one, which is that a well-organized fidelity to facts, no matter how remarkable those facts are, is not the same thing as a dramatic shape.
The facts are these. Betty Anne Waters (Swank), an uneducated bartender and mother of two from the small town of Ayer, Massachusetts, saw her only brother Kenny (Rockwell) put away for the brutal murder of a neighbor in 1983. She knew he didn’t do it. So she got a GED, put herself through college and law school, became a lawyer, got in touch with more famous fellow lawyer Barry Scheck (Peter Gallagher) in the early days of his nonprofit Innocence Project, retrieved forgotten evidence from her brother’s case and had it reevaluated in order to exonerate him. DNA testing didn’t exist when her quest began, but became essential when it ended. That’s how long it took.
And yes, that’s enough for screenwriter Pamela Gray and director Tony Goldwyn to craft a functional if unfortunately forgettable drama. Goldwyn has plenty of experience as an actor, and the emotional rhythms of his film suggest an earned easy rapport with actors. But rapport alone is not enough. Most of his directing experience has been in television, and “Conviction” suffers from the debilitating effects of small-screen thinking. Obviously it doesn’t help that small-screen thinking is just what Gray’s script demands.
On the plus side, Gray and Goldwyn’s virtue-minded project does offer several strong supporting female performances: from Ari Graynor as Kenny’s waylaid daughter, Minnie Driver as Betty Anne’s law-school friend, Juliette Lewis as Kenny’s ex-lover and a dubious witness, and particularly Melissa Leo as the cranky cop who had it in for Kenny since day one.
There are hints that being the only female cop on the Ayer police force in the early ’80s might make anybody cranky. And that Kenny, a hothead and a troublemaker at least since he and his sister were unwillingly separated as foster children, never seemed inclined to respect authority. But the movie doesn’t make a priority of exploring these intriguing ambiguities, nor the related notion that this ostensibly inspiring story might also be read as a deeply disillusioning one. Not all sacrifices are inherently uplifting; not all persistence is noble. Finally, and vexingly, the film doesn’t bother to trouble itself much about the real perpetrator, and the victim, of the murder Kenny Waters apparently didn’t commit.
Instead it seems to worry that courtroom scenes and other legal procedures are inherently boring, whereas cloying childhood flashbacks are not. Lest it seem too arty for the less educated stock of working-class heartlanders whose lives it surveys, “Conviction” treats the Waters’ sibling bond, and the ordeals it endured, with a too heavy hand. It all adds up to a discomfiting leadenness — not the kind that feels like a lump in the throat or a weight in the stomach, alas, but rather the kind that results from too-familiar narrative tedium. Of course it’s the filmmakers’ prerogative to have a point of view on their material, but theirs is too protective, too packaged. At worst, that seems patronizing; at best, it lacks a certain courage of conviction.