It is a testament to Hillary Swank’s brilliance as an actress that her new film Conviction, based on a real story of a sister’s untiring efforts to vindicate her imprisoned brother, feels like more than the heartwarming, one-dimensional drama that it is. Conviction ultimately suffers from the usual shortcomings of real life dramas, a story so focused on the singular drive of a character that it is both inspiring and dull.
Swank plays Betty Anne Waters, a high school dropout whose troubled childhood in a small Central Massachusetts town forged a strong bond between her and her brother, Kenny Waters (Sam Rockwell). Kenny, a hard-living, fun loving extrovert was one of the usual suspects in town, convicted of assault and petty theft. So when an elderly woman turns up dead in 1980, Kenny is brought in and eventually charged with murder.
We never quite know whether Kenny is innocent, but there is no doubt in Betty Anne’s mind. She is singularly convinced that her brother is incapable of murder. At his sentencing, Betty Anne’s long effort to see her brother released begins. She gets her GED, attends community college, and eventually goes to law school so that she can represent her brother in the appeals process. Along the way, her marriage and family life suffer as she devotes her time and energy towards her brother’s release. Eventually, she is divorced, her two sons move in with their father, and Betty Anne looks like a fool, lost to a struggle that seems futile, if not mad.
Conviction’s great dramatic punch comes when Betty Anne learns in the 1990s of exonerations that have occurred because of the introduction of DNA testing. Equipped with a tool unavailable when she began her quest, fate seems to working in Betty Anne’s favor. Getting Kenny released won’t be easy, even with the possibility of DNA testing, but we know Betty Anne will get there. (After all, who would make a movie about this kind of life-long struggle ending in failure?)
Swank is brilliant in this role, bringing to the film her great talent for playing earthy women caught in the struggles of the everyday. She complicates the character by toying with our expectations of her own sanity, and one of the film’s strengths is how our own judgments of Betty Anne ebb and flow between admiring her spirit and dismissing her as insane.
Sam Rockwell is also good as Kenny; his charged, magnetic personality makes him likable, but there is always a hint of violence in his character, even in his moments of kindness, that keeps you wondering about his true capacity for murder.
But as Conviction drags on (and on), the movie becomes increasingly reliant on the question of Betty Anne’s potential success at overturning her brother’s conviction to maintain momentum. The only problem is there is no doubt in our minds that she will succeed, and so our interest in the struggle fades. And while Conviction seems to be trying to raise questions about the righteousness of the judicial system, this effort is ultimately undercut by the film’s fidelity to its character’s inspirational success.
The movie betrays a distinctively American optimism: the mechanisms of justice may be corrupt and Kafkaesque, but with a little elbow grease and determination, we can always achieve what is right. In real life story of Betty Anne and Kenny Waters, this is how the story played out, but by making an example of one of the few times the wayward ways our clumsy justice system was made straight, you can’t shake the lingering feeling that this movie under-serves those imprisoned men and women who aren’t lucky enough to have a sister like Betty Anne.
In addition, there is also a terrifying real life coda to the story of Kenny Waters that isn’t touched upon in the movie. Six months after his release, after two decades spent in jail wrongly accused, the man had a tragic fall and died suddenly. It is a bewildering, maddening, and seemingly meaningless twist of fate that seems fit for a Werner Herzog film. However tragic and disheartening, it is an ending to a real life story that contains more subtly and mystery than this boiled down movie version has the courage to tell.