The title Conviction has two meanings. The first and most obvious is in reference to the conviction of Kenneth Waters (Sam Rockwell) on a count of murder in the first degree. The second refers to his sister’s conviction. Her conviction that her brother is innocent and her conviction to help him win his freedom at all costs. Conviction tells the story of Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank) who spent nearly twenty years of her lifetime becoming an attorney in an attempt to prove her brother’s innocence. At times her devotion to this cause seems dangerously obsessive, but a little insight into these two loving siblings’ rough and underprivileged past helps us understand Betty Anne’s commitment to her brother and to her brother’s freedom. With lots of atmosphere and perfect timing, Conviction reels us into this true-life saga and into its dynamic and wonderfully realized characters and keeps us hooked for the tale’s duration. The result turns out to be an ultimately satisfying and emotionally rich motion picture, full of spot-on characterization and sporting a well-wrought screenplay by one Pamela Gray.
Conviction succeeds as one of those rare movies about people and people alone—a truly character driven story. This is as much a movie about loyalty and devotion as it is a courtroom drama, deriving its power from the characters who inhabit it. Each character is fully realized as a person, a true human being, not just a pawn in some story arch. As an audience member, these characters really fooled me. Never once were they unbelievable or inhuman. They don’t ask for sympathy and trust from us the audience like many characters do, but instead they earn our support by being just about as real and ordinary as a person could be. Of course this wonderful characterization is due in no small part to the fantastic performances found all over this film. Hilary Swank as Betty Anne Waters is right back on her game. I was a little worried about her after her dreary over-performance in last year’s Amelia, but this is some of her best work to date. The mannerisms, the voice inflections, the darting of her eyes from left to right, even the thick Massachusetts accent are all down to the T. Swank has certainly redeemed herself. The key to Swank’s performance is not in the emotion she exerts outwardly or in her strong and telling facial expression, but rather in the way she may arch an eyebrow or purse her lips. The performance lives not in the choice of words, but in the way the words are spoken as they role out of the mouth. Maybe this performance is so impressive because she borrowed from the talent she could have shown in Amelia. I do hope so.
But here I am goggling on about Hilary Swank when really I could highlight almost half a dozen actors worthy of recognition. The strength of this movie is in the performances by the actors if nowhere else. Minnie Driver in an important supporting role is strong and audacious and she creates a human being out of it, rather than just being a sidekick to Betty Anne. Sam Rockwell as the accused Kenneth is also perfectly cast. The acting in this movie is some of the best I’ve seen in a few years. It doesn’t get much stronger than this. Not only are the main actors and supporting actors brilliant, but every single little tiny insignificant actor is excellent. The cop that first arrests Kenny, one Officer Nancy Taylor, inhabits about five minutes of screen time, but the actress’s (Melissa Leo’s) performance is so convincing and so believable and perfect that it’s a role I’ll never forget. Ari Graynor’s performance as Kenneth’s estranged daughter Mandy is understated but surprisingly effective. There’s an older lady who is only given one scene as a court clerk whose performance is absolutely delightful (this actress’s name is Toya D. Brazel). Juliette Lewis plays a drunk former lover of Kenneth’s who testifies against him. She’s delivered one of the best performances of the year in my opinion but she was only given maybe ten minutes of screen time. This is really top-notch acting. It’s rare when an ensemble is this good not only in the main cast but also among the supporting and even bit roles. As I was watching it, I kept thinking, “Wow, this is full of absolutely gangbuster performances.”
As Betty Anne progresses through law school, nearly dropping out several times, she’s tried not only in the classroom but in her personal life as well. Her sons leave her to live with their father, she practically alienates her best friend, not to mention that she begins to look like she hasn’t slept in a couple of years. The emotional and physical toll this twenty-year-long ordeal takes on her is heavy and burdensome. Swank handles the challenge of appearing so weak while being so strong with subtlety and tact, never being over-the-top and never ever overacting which could be tempting in a role like this. There’s a particular scene in which she goes to visit a woman who testified against Kenneth, and instead of acting belligerent and nasty to her, she remains tactful and quiet to her, although we all know that she thinks this woman is as sleazy as it gets. Once Betty Anne begins to shape up in law school and finally passes the bar, she annexes the aid of her new found attorney friend Abra Rice (Minnie Driver). Abra serves as a slightly more gutsy and strong-willed shoulder to lean on as Betty Anne continues on through this torment. Her words are sharp and often painful, but full of wisdom. Minnie Driver handles this all carefully (which isn’t surprising because she’s one of the most talented yet underrated actresses of the new century). Near the end of the film, most of the loose ends are tied up and the conflict is resolved. One of the final shots of the movie features Kenny holding his dear sister Betty Anne in his arms while sitting on a bench together on the shores of a lake. It’s a beautiful shot that pretty much sums up the theme of the whole movie: that when a person is that loyal and loves another that much, they will be willing to do anything for them, whatever the costs. Even if this means loosing their husband and their family. The film is a hurricane of emotions, but in the eye of the storm is the simple principles of love and loyalty and that’s what fuels this fire of a movie.
I think maybe that’s the idea the filmmakers wanted to equate. Certainly it’s an interesting concept, that even though there are emotions and ideas and principles of self-sacrifice and freedom flying around all over the place, it all boils down to one basic human emotion: love, which complements loyalty. Betty Anne loves her brother almost to the point of exhaustion. Rarely does a film seem this real and this true to life. It doesn’t make profound statements and no proverbs emit from the mouths of these characters. Instead, the message is put across in an almost equivocating way, but ultimately crystal clear as a bell. And what a message it is!
Fox Searchlight Pictures Presents a Longfellow Production
Cast: Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Minnie Driver, Peter Gallagher, Melissa Leo, Karen Young, Clea Duvall, Sarab Kamoo, Juliette Lewis, Ari Graynor, Owen Campbell, Conor Donovan. Directed by Tony Goldwyn
Rated R for language and some violent images. Release Date: 15 October 2010