Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 11, 2011)
For a based-on-real-events drama, we head to 2010’s Conviction. In 1980, someone brutally murders Katharina Brow. Given his status as a local lowlife, the authorities question Kenny Waters (Sam Rockwell) but don’t detain him for long.
Two years later, however, this event comes back to haunt Kenny, and the police formally arrest him, largely because his ex-girlfriend Brenda (Clea DuVall) testifies that he confessed his guilt to her. We hear her claims as well as those from others, and we learn of Kenny’s troubled childhood as well as his criminal history as an adult.
All of these add up to Kenny’s conviction for murder and robbery and leads to a life sentence without parole. Kenny’s younger sister Betty Anne (Hilary Swank) refuses to believe that he actually committed the crime, and she helps pursue a variety of appeals.
None of these go well, so she decides to put her money where her mouth is. Though now a married mother of two in her thirties, Betty Anne goes through a long educational process; she obtains her GED and then works through college and law school so she can take over Kenny’s case. The film follows her quest to exonerate her brother.
Over the years since she gained public prominence via 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry, Swank has had a rather unusual career. With two Best Actress Oscars – for Cry and 2004’s Million Dollar Baby - she should probably be a major star, but she seems to remain on a second tier that doesn’t allow her entry to many “A”-list projects. This means that she alternates “Oscar bait” projects like Conviction and 2009’s Amelia with a string of romantic comedies and lower-brow efforts.
Conviction should allow Swank a chance to shine; not only does she play a woman who went on a remarkable journey, but also she’s on screen for the vast majority of the film. Occasional cutaways to Kenny serve to provide essentially the movie’s only scenes without Betty Anne.
I think Swank does pretty well with the role but her performance suffers from the one-sided nature of the character. Oh, Betty Anne gets to go through a range of emotions; though she usually seems stuck with anger, sadness or frustration, at least the story allows her to experience a mix of feelings, so Swank can demonstrate different facets of her role.
However, Betty Anne demonstrates zero character arc. She starts as wide-eyed and determined and remains that way through the entire film. At no point does she show any real change or growth; we don’t get a sense of a personality at work here, as Betty Anne exists more as a symbol than as a person.
That gives the movie a monotone nature that it can’t afford since it already comes with a predetermined outcome. I don’t feel that the ending of Conviction is predictable because it’s based on real events and we can find out what actually happened; I think it’s a march toward the inevitable because I know how Hollywood movies work. Seriously, do you think they’d make a movie about a woman’s 18-year quest to prove her brother’s innocence if she failed?
No, though that flick might be more interesting than this one. I will give the filmmakers credit for their attempts to cast doubt in our minds, as we clearly see hotheaded ne’er-do-well Kenny as someone who could kill. The movie’s early scenes show him as a juvenile delinquent with a short temper, a violent spirit and a list of criminal convictions in his past.
Unfortunately, the manner in which the film depicts Kenny’s troubled nature inadvertently harms it because it becomes next to impossible to care about Kenny. The story paints him as such a nasty piece of work that we’re actually pretty relieved to see him behind bars. Of course, I don’t endorse the punishment of a person for a crime he didn’t commit, but I sure don’t see Kenny as a sympathetic party; as depicted here, he seems like someone who would’ve ended up in prison even without the murder charge.
The movie does vaguely try to give him some positive traits, but these don’t stick. For instance, we see a bar altercation during which he nearly stabs a guy with a broken bottle just because the other dude made a crack about Kenny’s daughter. The offender had the audacity to state that maybe Kenny shouldn’t bring an infant to a bar – what a concept!
After Kenny calms down, he performs a silly dance and an impromptu striptease. This is supposed to make us forgive him – his sister and girlfriend do – because he’s such an irrepressible, fun guy.
Uh, no. Rather than seem charming and lovable, Kenny just comes across like he’s unhinged and narcissistic. The film’s attempts to paint him as charming actually make me like him less; he feels like a total sociopath without any sense of right or wrong. And this is the guy I’m supposed on whose freedom I’m supposed to invest emotional attachment?
Even without such an unsympathetic party involved, Conviction falters due to sluggish storytelling. In its first act, it flits across eras in a disjointed manner, and once it becomes more clearly chronological, it feels choppy. I understand the filmmakers’ need to abbreviate the tale – after all, it takes place over two decades – but they do so at the expense of character development and a concise narrative.
At its heart, Conviction focuses on a potentially stirring tale of devotion and justice. On the screen, however, it falls flat. This is a project with noble intentions that never comes together.