Hilary Swank Shows Some Conviction

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Fox Searchlight

Sam Rockwell and Hillary Swank in Conviction

Conviction is the story of Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank), a fiercely loyal woman who moves heaven and earth to try to get her ne'er do well brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell) out of prison. Kenny has been convicted of a bloody murder, largely on the basis of testimony by two former girlfriends who swore he confessed to them. Both Kenny and his younger sister, bonded tightly by a painful childhood, are blue-collar sorts who can't afford a good attorney. So Betty Anne, a high school dropout, gets her GED, puts herself through college, then law school, then passes the bar — while still tending bar at the local pub. Sixteen years after Kenny's original conviction, she's got the credentials to clear his name.

This remarkable tale of sisterly devotion is closely based on the true story of Kenneth Waters, convicted in 1983 of killing a neighbor named Katharina Brow in Ayer, Mass., and the efforts his sister Betty Anne made on his behalf. From my perspective, this is the sort of material best consumed via newsprint, with a stimulating beverage at your side and much of Sunday morning still ahead of you. Did I want to spend two evening hours with Swank walking me through every step of another underdog's remarkable journey? Considering I still haven't quite gotten over my last remarkable journey with Swank (2010's lamentable biopic Amelia), I thought not.

But Convicted is better than that. While Swank is at her most earnest here, she's very good; and as a guy only a sister could love, Rockwell gives a beautifully nuanced, unexpectedly touching performance. They're supported by an outstanding group of actors, including the always great Melissa Leo as a malevolent cop, Ari Graynor as the grown up daughter Kenny barely knows and a couple of scene stealing moments by Juliette Lewis as Kenny's vibrantly devious ex-girlfriend. What takes Conviction out of the Erin Brockovich inspirational orbit — and gives it fresh interest — is the fact that Betty Anne is never portrayed as a fish suddenly taking brilliantly to judicial waters. Instead of being a legal savant, she's a persistent lunatic tilting at windmills for the sake of a familial love no one else can quite understand.

Director Tony Goldwyn, reteaming with A Walk on the Moon screenwriter Pamela Gray, keeps the movie blessedly clear on this point: Kenny is a barfight perpetually waiting to happen, and in her devotion to clearing his name, Betty Anne is Donna Quixote. My favorite scene comes just after she and her friend from law school, Abra (Minnie Driver), who has been providing moral and practical support in this legal odyssey, learn that all evidence from Kenny's case was destroyed ten years after his conviction. It's the apparent death knell for their cause, which has rested on the hope that new DNA technology could prove Kenny innocent. Back home, Betty Anne places a feast of macaroni in front of her two amiable teenaged sons (her husband, played by Loren Dean, fled several years earlier), while Abra breaks the news to the boys. It's over, Abra says. Hopeless. (Driver is so good in this part, which must have seemed like nothing on paper. When Abra is doubting Betty Anne, she serves as our stand in, but in her constant, kind friendship, she helps us appreciate this single minded woman.) Betty Anne tells her friend to get the hell out of her house, helps herself to some macaroni, and assures her sons, with a loony smile, that this is "just a setback." She seems less plucky than she does pigheaded, and her efforts on Kenny's behalf exact a price (her boys ask to go live with their father at one point). And when Kenny tells his sister, "I'm a piece of [expletive], honey," we're inclined to believe him.

The nagging doubt that Betty Anne might not be right about her brother's innocence helps drive the movie, at least until she convinces activist Barry Scheck (Peter Gallager) and his Innocence Project to help her with the case — at which point, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley (who later famously lost her bid for Ted Kennedy's Senate seat, and is played by Jennifer Roberts here) becomes the bad guy. And Kenny certainly doesn't turn into a saint in prison. He's always been a guy without boundaries, a chronic inappropriate kidder with a hair trigger temper. But the movie continually asks, doesn't he still deserve to be loved? Without overlooking his flaws or Betty Anne's blind spots, it continually answers in the affirmative, with conviction.