When a movie has a very strong plotline and/or message, it can sometimes take its time to manifest itself. It will beat around the bush and make the viewer wait patiently until it has sufficient structure and weight to dig into the meaty part of the story. This is not one of those films, and whether or not that’s a good quality is up for grabs.
“Conviction,” directed by Tony Goldwyn, is based on the true story of Betty Anne Waters, a small town woman who’s brother, Kenny, is wrongfully accused and convicted of murdering a woman. Betty puts her entire life on hold for nearly two decades and puts herself through law school in order to prove Kenny’s innocence, when the authorities line up against her, for fear of having their mistakes revealed.
From the moment it was first announced, this film’s plot sounded like Oscar gold. A powerful human interest story of people overcoming huge obstacles in the search for truth and redemption, with the added bonus of being true to life. However, I’ve discovered that this type of story’s line that separates it between high art and Hallmark Saturday afternoon fare is very thin. “Conviction” straddles that border quite precariously.
Much more than a directing or writing heavy piece, this film is really an acting showcase, and in that respect, it mostly prevails. Hilary Swank is very good, as usual. Forceful and direct, she can definitely carry a scene, even if I’ve never really been that fond of her as an actress, in regard, at least, to everything she’s done after “Boys Don’t Cry.” Minnie Driver matches that Swank’s no-nonsense intensity, and adds a decent dose of humor.
More than anyone else, however, this film is a major Oscar vehicle for the long-overdue for a nomination Sam Rockwell. In all honesty, the performance isn’t really much better than anything else he’s ever done, which isn’t to say that it isn’t stellar. Rockwell is just an actor of such extraordinary depth and naturalism that, aside from Duncan Jones’ “Moon,” nothing has ever fully encompassed the range of his talent. Will he finally get a nomination? With such a crowded field, maybe not, but one of these years, he will score big with them and it will be worthwhile.
The biggest and most delightful surprise of the film is Juliette Lewis in a tiny part that brings back the acting prowess that made her such a commodity in the early to mid-nineties. She completely envelops her character of a trashy misanthrope who is a key witness for the prosecution in both appearance and quality. I would love to see her take on more roles like this and perhaps she could become a compelling leading lady once again.
The film itself doesn’t quite live up to its performances. The directing lacks a certain artistic finesse. It plays out like a TV movie, bland and by the numbers. The script is really kind of all over the place, in a manner of speaking. It’s chronologically skewed, but not in a beneficial or coherent way. It takes a good 40 to 45 minutes for the plotline to truly take shape.
The movie’s message, that goes kind of unspoken for a while, until it is literally spoken, is one of capital punishment. It’s true that had Kenny Waters’ gotten the death penalty, he never would have survived long enough for his sister to pull out all the stops for his redemption, but couldn’t they have come out with a better way of getting that across than by simply saying: “If your father had gotten the death penalty, he’d be dead by now.” A note to Tony Goldwyn: exercise subtlety.
One highlight is that the film has a very clear sense of where and when it takes place. The mis en scene is crafted to create a vivid portrait of this down and out family brought up in a rundown rural environment throughout the past three decades. The wardrobe, in particular, does a fantastic job in capturing the kind of motionless world of poverty and torpor that Hilary Swank’s character fights to come free of.
All in all, this is not much more than an exercise in mediocrity. It’s got a few moments that are hot and cold, but mostly just lukewarm and by the numbers. And, I’m not gonna lie, I’m kind of sick of reviewing lukewarm movies. 2010 has got to give me something that I can shout about soon…please?
GRADES: B- * * * / * * * * * 6.2 / 10.0