DVD Release Date: February 1, 2011
Theatrical Release Date: October 15, 2010 (limited)
Rating: R (for language and some violent images)
Genre: Drama, Biopic
Run Time: 107 min.
Director: Tony Goldwyn
Actors: Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Melissa Leo, Minnie Driver, Peter Gallagher, Owen Campbell
"People don't like to admit when they've made a mistake," Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank) explains in Conviction, the true story of one woman's efforts to free her brother from an unjust imprisonment. Powered by Betty Anne's hope and perseverance, Conviction delivers a life-affirming message about the pursuit of truth and the love of family. It's a powerful story wrapped in an unassuming package, but its adult language and content make it suitable only for more mature audiences.
Kenny (Sam Rockwell) is a lovable guy who lacks self-control, especially when he's drinking. One night, after bumping a man at a crowded bar, he flies off the handle and decks the guy. It's a moment designed to reveal the character's volatile nature, to make us question his innocence when police officer Nancy Taylor (Melissa Leo) shows up at a later date to arrest him for the murder of a local resident.
Kenny treats the officer with contempt, but soon finds himself behind bars. It comes as no surprise when Kenny's court-appointed lawyer fails to win his release, but our hearts go out to his sister, Betty Anne, who is convinced of Kenny's innocence. A bartender and mother of two, Betty Anne is so committed to freeing her brother that she pledges to get her GED and put herself through college and law school to become his legal advocate.
The outcome of Betty Anne's efforts leave little doubt as to the righteousness of her cause, but the film rushes through some important moments in Betty Anne's pursuit. It skips past the time it took to earn her GED, while her law-school years amount to a few brief scenes demonstrating Betty Anne's struggles to juggle work, home life and studies. The main purpose of depicting Betty Anne's schooling is to introduce fellow student Abra Rice (Minnie Driver), who becomes Betty Anne's loyal friend—and occasional skeptic.
The film's skepticism—shown via a few select moments questioning Kenny's innocence—is one of its strengths, but Conviction is less questioning in one important area: the toll Betty Anne's pursuit took on her family. Her husband leaves her and her sons eventually ask to live with their father, with whom they can do "guy things." While Conviction doesn't shy away from the husband's disenchantment with his wife's single-minded mission to free her brother, it doesn't show the extent of Betty Anne's grief over the loss beyond an image of her collapsing in tears. The moment feels perfunctory, all the more so when, near the film's conclusion, her sons become her biggest cheerleaders.
Workmanlike in its storytelling and visual presentation, the film, directed by Tony Goldwyn, is a showcase for three fine actors who remind us of why they're at the top of their game. The story opens with a verite shot that calls to mind the opening moments from Joe Berlinger's and Bruce Sinofsky's excellent 1992 documentary Brother's Keeper, indicating that the film will have a more vigorous cinematic style. But Conviction soon settles into a much more low-key approach to the material. Goldwyn, who has directed several episodes of TV procedurals like Law and Order, carries over the slightly shaky camera work and tight close-ups that give that program its "ripped from the headlines" energy, but which has become routine over the years. However, the lack of anything more than subtle camera movement in Conviction gives its cast a chance to shine and the actors make the most of Pamela Gray's script.
In her focused determination, Betty Anne resembles other Swank characters who fought for justice, such as Erin Gruwell in Freedom Writers, another uplifting true tale anchored by Swank's performance. Whether she's playing a pioneering aviator (Amelia) or a lower-class boxer (Million Dollar Baby), Swank has become a champion of female empowerment on the screen.
Sam Rockwell has been turning in memorable supporting performances for years in outstanding films such as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and recently in more mainstream fare with this summer's Iron Man 2. His little-seen leading role in last year's Moon left few doubts that he's one of our finest working actors. His portrayal of Kenny, who endures multiple injustices while in prison, is one of the year's best performances, and may finally land him a well deserved Oscar nomination.
Conviction's emphasis on justice reminds us of the psalmist, who asks God, "How long will you judge unjustly, and show partiality to the wicked? Defend the poor and fatherless, do justice to the afflicted and needy. … Free them from the hand of the wicked" (Psalms 82:2-4). In Conviction, Betty Anne Waters is an instrument of justice who sacrifices years of her life and endures the derision of others. Her accomplishment is a triumph of the will and the spirit. Conviction may not make for one of the year's more dazzlingly cinematic films, but its inspirational story is memorable and moving.
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Language/Profanity: Very rough language throughout, including several misuses of the Lord's name; more than 30 uses of the "f" words; "a-s"; "s-it"; "whore"; "son of a b-tch."
Smoking/Drinking/Drugs: Betty works at a bar, where several early scenes are set; Kenny drinks and gets violent; smoking at the bar; Kenny requests a limo with a fully stocked bar; a woman drinks wine; a New Year's champagne toast at a bar; Kenny's daughter smokes.
Sex/Nudity: Betty Anne's boss makes a sexually suggestive comment; Kenny does a strip tease at the bar and his bare backside is seen; a husband and wife are shown talking in bed and kissing; a gesture suggests oral sex; Abra jokes that she, Betty, or both will have to sleep with a lawyer to persuade him to take Kenny's case.
Violence/Crime: A dead body is covered in blood, and blood stains the bed, carpet and walls of the victim's home; Kenny attacks a man at a bar; bloody photos and descriptions of an assault victim; children fight each other; testimony against Kenny includes accusations that he tried to throw his girlfriend out of a window and that he bashed in a woman's teeth; as children, Betty Anne and Kenny break into a neighbor's home, and Kenny fights the police who come to investigate the incident; Kenny attempts suicide and is made to promise he won't do that again; Betty Anne impersonates Abra; Betty Anne threatens to kill Kenny if he doesn't follow through with a test that could free him; upon learning of a delay in Kenny's release, Betty Anne throws fragile items at the floor and wall, breaking them; Kenny attacks a prison guard and has to be subdued.
Religion/Morals: A funeral scene at a Catholic church; upon hearing good news, Betty Anne exclaims, "Thank you, God!"; a police chief is recalled as wanting to pray with a person who is then forced to give false testimony; Barry Sheck is described by a woman as a "Jew lawyer."