Conviction (2010)

If you don’t like Conviction, you’re going to seem sub-human, heartless, devoid of any decency. But that’s not your fault. It’s the movie’s.

Or better… it’s the movies. How many times have we seen stories just like this?

A woman (usually) or a man senses that a great injustice has taken place. So she goes after the truth with everything she’s got, determined to right the wrong. She hangs on like a pit bull and won’t let go until the bad guys cry “We surrender!” All she has to do is find the giveaway clue, the needle in the haystack, the key to open a locked door.

Conviction, directed by actor Tony Goldwyn, is one of those routines that audiences will sit through out of a sense of responsibility, then discuss with a tone of obligatory respect for about a minute, and then go on with their lives and never think of it again. It’s based on a true story, which is a very inspiring story, sure… but as a drama, it just isn’t interesting. A 60 Minutes segment featuring interviews with the real people would have been just as interesting, probably more so.

Here are the basic details:

Betty Anne Waters and her brother Kenny had a miserable childhood, and they sought escape from their troubles by running away from home and engaging in petty crimes, occasionally breaking into other houses to dream of other lives. It’s easy to see what provoked such rebellious behavior, but it’s also easy to see this setting the stage for a spectacular crisis of credibility down the road.

So Betty Anne and Kenny grew up and started families of their own. But when Kenny (played by Sam Rockwell) was arrested and convicted of murder, Betty Anne (played by Hilary Swank) couldn’t believe her big brother had done anything so severe.

So, despite her husband’s protests, she dedicated her life to setting him free, which involved working as a waitress, earning her GED, and then suffering through law school until she passed the bar.

Betty Anne DID. NOT. GIVE. UP.

This cost her the marriage. (At least, the film strongly implies that.) It complicated her duties as a mother.

But Betty Anne DID. NOT. GIVE. UP.

She dug for evidence that had supposedly been destroyed. She leaned on a faithful friend (Minnie Driver). She applied pressure, determined to catch an ex-policewoman (Melissa Leo) in a lie. And she got involved with The Innocence Project, an organization dedicated to reviewing questionable convictions.

Sound dramatic? Noble? Well… it is as a summary. But as a movie, it’s not much more than a lot of hushed conversations over paperwork, tense phone calls, predictably dismaying setbacks that seem evenly arranged to make the movie last two hours, and predictably emotional discoveries. Sure, you’ll feel pain at the misery of Kenny and Betty Anne’s childhood, exasperation at the setbacks in Betty Anne’s quest, and bursts of happiness in her moments of blessing. This story always works, after all.

But does it give us anything distinctive, anything more than the kind of routine we can get on prime-time TV every night, where the heroes press on until they solve the problem and we can all go home?

It could have.

The film acknowledges, but does not give sufficient attention to a complicated question: When do our responsibilities to our families mean that we should abandon other respectable pursuits? Clearly, Betty Anne’s marriage and motherhood are severely damaged by her obsession with freeing Kenny. Yes, we want to see an innocent man released from jail. But do we want it to cost a husband his wife, and two children their mother? The film treats this situation as if anybody who gets in Betty Anne’s way or questions her is just being bone-headed and unfair.

Meanwhile, we catch only glimpses of what’s happening with Kenny in prison, and they’re unremarkable. It would have been nice to know more about how he endured all that time behind bars.

I’ll give the filmmakers credit for avoiding the familiar finale in which we see heroes gloat while bad guys glower in their defeat.

But while it avoids many common pitfalls, the movie fails to offer anything new or interesting. It feels almost like a straight-to-video event, something that was pulled off a shelf from ten years ago now that the lead actors have become famous for other roles. Swank is pretty good. Rockwell is pretty good. Driver is a delight. Leo is pretty good. The soundtrack is nicely understated.

But it’s all so uninteresting to look at. Television dramas have become so compelling in recent years that big-screen filmmakers have that much more reason to remind us why we go to see things on a big screen in the first place. On a canvas like that, let’s have some interesting imagery. I can’t think of a single memorable image in this entire movie. Except… well, I’m getting to it….

As Betty Anne’s last few setbacks had me checking my watch, I found myself wishing Julia Roberts and Albert Finney would march in and bring some spirit to the proceedings.

Instead, the late-breaking fireworks show comes in the form of Juliette Lewis.

Juliette “Natural Born Killer” Lewis! I was so startled by her appearance in this film that I couldn’t decide whether I was delighted or dismayed to see her back on the big screen. (Let’s face it: Her career has been memorably outrageous in both its ups and downs.) It’s Lewis who delivers a sight I won’t soon forget.

It’s her teeth. These grotesque teeth that she flaunts are a masterful creation of the film’s makeup artists (at least, I hope so!) They may be the worst moviegoers have seen since Jude Law’s grimy grin in Road to Perdition or Gary Oldman’s smile in True Romance.

Her performance is almost as startling as the teeth. Jittery, snarling, deranged… she makes you sincerely hope that it’s all an act. In retrospect, I wonder if this outrageous show might not be a motion-capture performance by Andy Serkis, with animation that cleverly resembles Juliette Lewis.

It’s good to see Peter Gallagher again, too. He’s interesting in his thankless role here. And I can’t help but wonder if a movie focusing on The Innocence Project, about the highs and lows of what must be an excruciating endeavor, might not have been more compelling.

But alas, neither Lewis nor Gallagher can save Conviction from its own uninspiring earnestness and unimaginative imagery.

The true story is remarkable. The film about it is anything but.

Director – Tony Goldwyn; writer – Pamela Gray; director of photography – Adriano Goldman; editor – Jay Cassidy; music – Paul Cantelon; production designer – Mark Ricker; costumes – Wendy Chuck; producers – Andrew Sugerman and Andrew S. Karsch and Mr. Goldwyn. Starring – Hilary Swank (Betty Anne Waters), Sam Rockwell (Kenny Waters), Minnie Driver (Abra Rice), Melissa Leo (Nancy Taylor), Peter Gallagher (Barry Scheck), Ari Graynor (Mandy Marsh), Loren Dean (Rick), Conor Donovan (Richard), Owen Campbell (Ben), Tobias Campbell (Young Kenny), Bailee Madison (Young Betty Anne), Clea DuVall (Brenda Marsh), Karen Young (Elizabeth Waters), Talia Balsam (Prosecuting Attorney), John Pyper-Ferguson (Aidan) and Juliette Lewis (Roseanna Perry). Fox Searchlight Pictures. 1 hour 46 minutes.
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