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Conviction (2010) ***

November 19, 2010

written by: Pamela Gray
produced by: Andrew Sugerman, Andrew Karsch & Tony Goldwyn
directed by: Tony Goldwyn
rated R (for language and some violent images)
107 min.
U.S. release date: October 15, 2010
The title of actor/director Tony Goldwyn’s latest film has a double meaning that refers to a brother and sister that share an impenetrable bond through a life of harrowing events. The story is based on the life of Betty Anne Waters and her brother Kenny. He is serving a conviction for a murder he didn’t commit and she holds to a steadfast conviction of his innocence. What could’ve easily been a Lifetime movie-of-the-week is elevated here by actors who surrender to their roles, from the two leads to the supporting players that surround them with lived-in characters.  As a result, material that would typically suffocate viewers with overwrought sappiness instead shows a heart and soul that communicates an inspiring amount of loyalty.
This is a film where the impressive performances and confident direction, make you forget about the familiar clichés often associated with this type of story. There won’t be any award nominations coming for “Conviction” but that doesn’t matter. Unlike other movies with similar storylines and random Oscar moments, this film was made just to tell what happened in an unglossed manner.
It’s actually no surprise that in 1983, Kenny (Sam Rockwell), wound up arrested since the odds were always stacked against him and his volatile behavior. He and Betty Anne (Hilary Swank) had endured a variety of childhood neglect and abuse, always providing for each other and relying on each other to endure any pain or hardship. Kenny is now alone, sent away for a gruesome crime and this time Betty Anne is going to work harder than ever to help her brother. Little does she know just how much her life will change in the process.

Unemployed and single, Betty Anne devotes herself to Kenny’s exoneration while trying to raise two boys. She earns her GED, and struggles her way through law school, while maintaining the goal of representing her brother, in order to free him. Years pass with others attempting to dissuade her and encourage Betty Anne to give up (even Kenny tells her to at one point), one fellow law student friend, Abra (Minnie Driver, displaying deadpan wit), helps her stay on track. Through Betty Anne’s tenacious resolve, the two come across some critical DNA evidence that could free Kenny, long assumed destroyed.  

With the help of big-time lawyer Barry Scheck (Peter Gallagher) and his legal team at The Innocence Project, designed to specifically help the wrongfully convicted, Betty Anne inches closer to her goal. But first, they must find new evidence against Kenny’s guilt which connects viewers with some of the conflicted hanger-ons from Kenny’s past. There’s the deplorable Nancy Taylor (a brilliant Melissa Leo), the cop who pinned him for the murder, a couple of former flames (Clea DuVall and Juliette Lewis), both haggard and emotionally stunted) and estranged daughter (Ari Graynor), who was told all her life that her father was a killer. The supporting work here really bring these roles to life, giving the film a resonance that would be difficult to arrive at on its own.
Pamela Gray’s screenplay has the expected legal red tape and emotional weight yet does well to focus on Betty Anne’s tenacity and Kenny’s broken spirits. Thankfully far from pretentious, it’s a tender examination of exhaustion, stamina and dejection.
Now, many will look at the ads for this film or see a trailer and think here is yet again another Swank role, based on an inspiring true story. To that I say, here is a two-time Oscar-winning actress who has found a niche and does well with it. Nothing wrong with that. I appreciated that Betty Anne was often shown as a meek yet determined woman trying to do anything she can to help her brother. She struggles in law school, often tackling material that doesn’t come naturally. There’s no show-stopping “Ah-ha!” moments here, even when that evidence is finally found, it’s more quiet emotional elation than a high-five moment in the courtroom hallway (although that’s there too).  Everyone here is significantly glammed down, fitting their low-income down-trodden roles well. Goldwyn must have saved a significant amount of money on make-up on these characters.
Just as Swank is perfectly cast as the crusading sibling, the same can be said for Sam Rockwell, who crafts a realized character in both his body language and attitude. Rockwell brings his comic timing and expected wily charm and injects consistent bursts of frustration and exasperation. He’s a misunderstood man, who has forever been labeled as trouble. It’s no wonder he feels like everyone has it in for him. Rockwell would’ve easily gone over-the-top with the role, but his scenes with Swank ground them both in a reality that portrays believable sibling chemistry. Kenny can’t help but to be moved by his sister’s determination and love. Neither of them are giving up on each other and you get the idea that both of them wind up inspiring each other.
Goldwyn (“The Last Kiss” & “A Walk on the Moon”) does the audience a service by focusing themes of devotion and loyalty instead of courtroom hysteria. He successfully navigates through the various doubts toward Kenny’s innocence, focusing on the inseparable relationship between Kenny and Betty Anne. Their single-minded devotion to each other is a highlight in a film that is littered with engaging and memorable characters.   


5 Comments leave one →
  1. C.S. permalink
    November 19, 2010 5:41 pm

    “There won’t be any award nominations coming for ‘Conviction’ but that doesn’t matter.”

    You’re right: There won’t be. And that’s a shame in a way, because I think Sam Rockwell is more than deserving of a nod. He amazes me in everything I see him in, and he’s absolutely tremendous here.

    Swank, though, “has found a niche and does well with it” – as you said. It’s still a very good performance, don’t get me wrong – but it doesn’t quite have the same “sizzle” because she’s been down this road a few too many times already. It would be nice to see her break out and try something new. She certainly has the talent. Then again, when she has gone outside of her comfort zone, the results have been disastrous (“The Reaping” anyone?).

    I agree with the three-star rating for “Conviction.” That’s about how I pegged it myself.

    BTW, if you haven’t already, do a Google search on Kenneth Waters to find out what happened to him after the events depicted in the film. (It was left out of the little text blurb at the end.) I completely understand the reasons for omitting such information, but it probably cost the movie a half-star in my mind. Yeah, I know things like that should have no bearing on my opinion of the movie itself – but in this case, I can’t help it. :\

    • David J. Fowlie permalink*
      November 19, 2010 6:02 pm

      Rockwell will win an Oscar one day, of this I am sure. Didn’t Swank try period in “The Affair of the Necklace?” Yeah, that didn’t turn out so well. Maybe she should try sci-fi or western. I’m aware a bout Kenny’s outcome and I understand and respect why it was left out but I don’t understand how that would count against the film for you.

  2. C.S. permalink
    November 19, 2010 10:25 pm


    Just to be clear, I generally loathe when people complain about certain elements being omitted from a movie based on a true story. However, I’m making an exception in this case.

    Let’s use A Beautiful Mind as an example. Various aspects of the real-life person were apparently whitewashed from the movie. I can live with that because the film was about a man overcoming mental illness and doing great things (obviously, that’s a very simplified description – but it gets at the basic gist of the story). The movie would have still been about that even if less savory details about Crowe’s character were put into the script.

    With Conviction, however, the omission of Kenneth Waters’ death completely changes the entire movie. From an “artistic” standpoint, I understand why they did it. Still, coming home from the movie to find out Kenny died felt like a sucker-punch twist ending that severely altered every aspect of what I had just seen. Only, in this case, that “twist” was left out of the actual film.

    I’m not suggesting they should have shot new scenes or anything. Just mentioning it in the text at the end would have been enough for me.

    Granted, such a downer of an ending may have indeed backfired. But they could have easily made it work too. It would have given the movie another layer and certainly infused some more depth into the Swank character. Plus, hey, it’s true – it really happened.

    (BTW, I realize there were other omissions too, but none of them are “game-changers” like Kenny’s death.)

    Like I said above, I’m not one of those people who expects slavish faithfulness to the source material. A movie is a movie, and with that comes all of its inherent limitations.

    I realize my reaction to all of this is more emotional than anything else. I’m not quite sure why it’s hitting that sore spot for me, but it is for whatever reason.

    • David J. Fowlie permalink*
      November 19, 2010 11:37 pm

      I hear ya. When I first found out about it, I was shocked. Then I was upset that they didn’t mention it along with everyone else at the end. I told my wife about it (who saw the film with me) and she was glad it wasn’t in there as it would’ve really taken the rug out from all those emotions we had already seen and invested while watching the movie. I get that. Maybe they coulda had a paragraph blurb tacked on, but then again would that have given the poor guy justice? I think just mentioning it like that woulda seemed kinda glib or cheap. The story is more about what Betty Anne did for her brother and the devotion and loyalty they both had. That’s all we really needed to know/see. In the end, all we really need is for a movie to succeed based on what we’re shown, and that’s what happened here.


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