With Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Minnie Driver, Melissa Leo, Juliette Lewis. Directed by Tony Goldwyn. R for language and some violent images. 106 minutes.
In a political season marked mostly by rage, CONVICTION is a non-partisan story of someone going up against the system with the odds against her, and never giving up. Based on a Massachusetts case of a man unjustly convicted of murder, it is an inspiring story of person doing the impossible because the alternative was simply unacceptable.
Sister and brother Betty Ann and Kenny Waters (Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell) grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in Ayer, where getting into trouble was not unknown to them. However, in 1983, Kenny was charged with and convicted of murdering Katharina Brow, even though he had been cleared of suspicion at the time of the murder three years earlier. Betty Ann then proceeded on a path that would be unbelievable in fiction, but which she actually accomplished: a high school dropout, she got her G.E.D. and then went on to successfully complete college and law school. Her only goal was to be in a position where she could fight to exonerate her brother.
It’s an incredible story that plays out over two decades, and one can sense the frustration as the years go by and they hit one road block after another. Eventually, she attracts the attention of the Innocence Project, a real organization that seeks to use modern evidentiary techniques – such as DNA analysis – to overturn wrongful convictions. Peter Gallagher appears as attorney Barry Scheck, who puts the weight of the Innocence Project behind the cause.
Director Tony Goldwyn, himself an actor, keeps this a personal story. While it’s no surprise seeing good performances from Swank or Minnie Driver, as her law school classmate who becomes her friend and ally, audiences who haven’t seen Sam Rockwell’s previous films (including “Galaxy Quest,” “Matchstick Men,” and “Moon”) will be in for a surprise. This is a career-making performance as we see him go from disbelief to despair to, possibly, hope. Among the supporting cast, pay attention to past Oscar nominee Melissa Leo (“Frozen River”) as a cop who seems to take special pleasure in arresting and convicting Waters, and Juliette Lewis, who steals her two scenes as a witness whose testimony may prove crucial.
The one political note here is that the script takes several potshots at the Massachusetts authorities who kept Waters locked up, particularly our current Attorney General Martha Coakley. It’s a stretch to make her the villain of the piece – she wasn’t involved in the original prosecution, after all, nor did she drag her feet as depicted here – but that’s Hollywood for you. It would be a shame if people used this movie as an excuse to vote for or against her.
That quibble aside, “Conviction” is a movie about family loyalty and about risking everything in order to do what’s right. It’s the sort of story that never goes out of fashion.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.