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2 reviews, 2 user ratings

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by Erik Childress

"More An Artist Rendering Than A True Photo"
2 stars

The central question behind the true story of Conviction is not whether Kenny Waters is guilty of the crimes he is sentenced for. It is asked of Kenny’s nephews who wonder whether the other would give up their entire lives to save the other. It is a question asked late in the film as his sister, Betty Anne, has spent more than a decade of her adult life going through the painstaking process of proving an innocence she only knows for certain in her heart. It is the stuff that movies have been made of since the days of Capra; a sure-fire formula of underdog adversity and true crime that can stir an audience even without the necessary spices to make its ingredients sizzle. The lack of flavor in Tony Goldwyn’s film to elevate it from simple movie-of-the-week theatrics to the actual impact of cinematic convictions lessens this story focus and keeps us distracted as we look for the Lifetime logo to appear in the bottom corner.

Three years after the murder of Katharina Brow in 1980 Massachusetts, Kenny Waters (Sam Rockwell) was convicted of the crime. Already let go once after questioning, arresting officer Nancy Taylor (Melissa Leo) had nevertheless gathered enough evidence and ex-girlfriend testimony to prove a violent history and get a life sentence. His sister, Betty Anne (Hilary Swank) refuses to believe that he could be capable of such a crime, even if they were known for the occasional petty one in their youth. So convinced is she that in the middle of raising two boys and waitressing evenings, Betty Anne applies to law school to get to the truth.

Aided by the next oldest student in her class, Abra Rice (Minnie Driver), they eventually begin searching for the loopholes in the case that might free Kenny. One such development in overturning convictions is the rise in DNA evidence being used to prove innocence. This brings her to the Innocence Project overseen by onetime O.J. attorney, Barry Scheck (Peter Gallagher) who accepts her case as a potential winner. It all depends on whether the evidence from the decades-old case still exists. In-between her search for justice, her marriage desolves, years pass and Kenny is growing stir crazy in prison where even he is unsure whether a DNA test will save or further convict him.

Most of Conviction's best scenes are right at the outset as it swiftly establishes details of the past, particularly Kenny's playful yet volatile personality and the strong bond with his sister as creatures of a broken home and an irresponsible mother. The pacing of these initial moments slows down to allow the story to unfold more traditionally, but it turns out there is very little to unfold and most of the elements are still rushed through to get to them. Both the initial trial and Betty Anne's struggles in school almost become afterthoughts and setup major conflicts in the evolvement from zero-to-hero. The college scenes deserve a more Rudy-esque feeling of starting well behind the pack, but other than a momentary struggle with public speaking and a throwaway line of nearing the failure line, we never quite feel the odds pushing against her determination.

Even if her path to enlisting the help of one of the most recognizable attorneys at the time was glossed over entirely, the case itself should be the unmovable rock on her journey. From the get-go, however, the details are never that clear-cut aside from Kenny having a temper and some hearsay testimony from soured relationships. More was used to convict Dr. Richard Kimble. And when it comes down to Betty Anne's proverbial smoking gun, it is such a deus ex machina that one must ask if all the schooling was worth what a simple "please" eventually got her. Where Pamela Gray's script truly fails is in the dynamic between Swank's Betty Anne and Leo's Officer Taylor. The former being a working class woman utilizing all her time to develop a voice the courts will listen to and the latter is the portrait of a woman who may be abusing her position in power (and her gender) to advance her career at the expense of men who disrespected her. This second part is all speculation and leading the reader, but so little is known about Taylor's true motivations that even the film's coda has nothing to add about her story.

Also being failed with so much to tell and, ironically, so little time to tell it is Kenny's side of the story. Anytime Sam Rockwell is involved in a project, an audience should know that he is not going to let them down. Again though, Gray's screenplay cannot provide his incarceration with anything but good-news/bad-news breaks with his sister and his outbursts in the visitation room. Nothing is devoted to his day-to-day grind behind bars or even moments of reflection over what brought him to this. A delayed reconciliation with the baby daughter he left behind should have been a real tugger rather than the muted necessity it feels like. Even the sad truth of the aftermath of this case is left off the film's "where are they now" exit to leave us with a sunset moment rather than a tragedy. Rockwell does fine with what he is, as does most of the cast, but it is only Juliette Lewis that stands out. As we are long past wondering whether Lewis' role (aside from a brief courtroom appearance) was left on the cutting room, she shows up once more to deliver the film's best scene and puts a stamp on a movie that already felt mailed in.

Conviction, in its current form, would standout on a woman's network cable station strictly because of the cast involved. Other than that it fits right in with a running time and act breaks suitable for sponsored television. It also settles in alongside the current crop of true stories like the upcoming Made In Dagenham and the abysmal Secretariat that have nothing more to say about their subject matters outside the surface of the facts. Pamela Gray and director Tony Goldwyn can take a cue for future projects from other recent biopics like The Social Network, The King's Speech and 127 Hours, films that have a pep in their step on how to honor the real-life participants (or in Social Network's case, strip him down) but also gets under their DNA and thematically enriches their accomplishments by telling us what makes them tick. Aside from the countdown to the next commercial.

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originally posted: 10/15/10 15:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Austin Film Festival For more in the 2010 Austin Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Boston Film Festival For more in the 2010 Boston Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

10/25/10 Ming Interesting story of sister's love for his brther..Take 16 years to get him him out of jai 3 stars
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  15-Oct-2010 (R)
  DVD: 01-Feb-2011

  14-Jan-2011 (15)

  15-Oct-2010 (M)
  DVD: 01-Feb-2011

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