Formulaic Drama Boasts Strong Performances
Would you give up your life to save someone else’s? What if that “someone else” were your brother? That’s the burning dilemma behind Conviction, the true-life story of how a woman spent 18 years putting herself through college and then law school -- while tending bar and raising children -- to garner the release of her ne’er-do-well brother believed wrongfully convicted of a brutal murder.
While the story is certainly an inspirational one and there’s no shortage of nearly unbelievable truth-is-stranger-than-fiction moments, the real driving force behind the picture is the strong showing from a cast well-heeled in these emotionally hefty, dogged-determination films.
Hilary Swank, sporting a backwoods, rural Massachusetts accent, plays Bettye Anne Watters, a poor, downtrodden single mom who earns a GED, goes to college and eventually gets a law degree to fight in court for the release of her brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell). This is a great bit of casting, for no other actress seems so well suited for aggrieved-but-determined roles. She showed it in Million Dollar Baby and delivers here too. Her Bettye Anne's innocent sensibility as a loving mom comes across as always comforting, yet she’s also believable in her moments of selfless devotion and hard-nosed resilience. Were Swank to fail, so would Conviction.
Her role wouldn’t work, however, without the equally fine performance of Sam Rockwell in his complementary role. He’s faced with punching through the tough outer crust of his repulsive Kenney, while somehow metering at least neutral on the likeability scale. Kenney’s a hothead who settles disagreements with a punch to the face and a broken beer bottle to the neck, so it’s no wonder he’s dragged into the police station every time a crime is committed in the small Massachusetts town. His latest trouble comes when he’s alleged to have murdered the next-door neighbour who was found beaten and stabbed more than 30 times. Thanks to some sketchy witness testimony and flimsy evidence, Kenney gets locked away with a life sentence.
Via some heart-wrenching flashbacks featuring Tobias Campbell as the adolescent Kenny and Bailee Madison as the young Bettye Anne, we’re given a better understanding of the strong bond that exists between the two siblings: Raised by a mother (Karen Young) so unfit, she instantly elevates Joan Crawford into June Cleaver company. Sadly, the two youngsters eventually realize it’s them against the world. The flashbacks also give a measure of weighted relevance to the tender-loving care Bettye Anne expresses towards her own children. Oddly though, the flashbacks stop after the first 30 minutes or so, giving the film a disjointed momentum.
There’s not much suspense to be found in the film’s ultimate outcome. We know going in that Hollywood wouldn’t have taken it unless it could be a real crowd-pleaser. But that’s not what’s important. The fascination comes from Bettye Anne’s tireless dedication as she hatches a plan that’ll take nearly two decades to bear fruit. But sometimes that’s not enough. Soderbergh did it better by tapping into an extra level of feistiness and fortitude with his Erin Brokovich. Here, director Tony Goldwyn’s approach loses most of its steam before the film’s climax.
Juliette Lewis has a few memorable scenes as a rotten-toothed, trailer park lowlife who testifies against Kenney. By the way, is there another actress working in Hollywood that can do “skank” any better? We think not. She’s brilliant. Minnie Driver also turns in a solid turn as Bettye Anne’s plucky law school pal, Abra, who’s at Bettye Anne’s side through thick and thin, lending some much-needed moments of levity to the tense proceedings. Karen Young has one extended scene as Bettye Anne’s detestable mother. Her callous, it’s-not-my-fault demeanor is sometimes hard to take, but is vital to the back story.
That Conviction’s success relies so heavily on its strong performances is certainly not a flaw. But some shortcomings in other areas by Goldwyn and his screenwriter Pamela Gray do hobble it significantly. Its paint-by-numbers formula, lack of a true, tangible villain, and disjointed pacing are all enough to keep the film from reaching greatness. Still, the movie does its job, which is to toss the audience into a moral outrage before cushioning them with a classic Hollywood pile-of-feathers ending. It’s typical Hollywood fare, just not the typical end-of-season gold it wants to be.
(Released by Summit Entertainment and rated “R” for profanity and violence.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.