This is what happened: In 1980, in Ayer, Massachusetts, Katherina Brow was savagely murdered. Her next-door neighbor, Kenny Waters, often in trouble with the law, was suspected of the crime. Two years later, an ex-girlfriend of Kenny's told the police that Kenny had confessed committing the crime to her. Kenny was convicted on the basis of the testimony and sentenced to life without parole.
Kenny's sister, Betty Anne Waters, believing her brother to be innocent, began a years-long crusade to get Kenny exonerated. Feeling that Kenny didn't receive proper legal counsel during the trial, Betty Anne got her GED, then a bachelor's degree, and then put herself through law school, all so that she could represent her brother as a professional advocate.
This story is the basis of Conviction, a new film starring Hilary Swank as Betty Anne and Sam Rockwell as Kenny. It sounds a little like a modern fairy tale, but it doesn't play out that way: Based on a true story, the hardscrabble film gives you a sense of the enormity and difficulty of the undertaking. Betty Anne struggles through school, her marriage falls apart, and her kids reject her. Kenny attempts suicide. The years mount, and hope wanes.
We see the painful upbringing of Betty Anne and Kenny, little scofflaws who break into houses so they can pretend to have better lives. We see the deepening bond between the siblings, devoted to each even after being put into separate foster homes. Kenny grows up on the local police's radar because he's one of those guys who's always getting into trouble. Betty Anne trusts her brother in part because he always took the fall for her. When he's arrested for murder, Betty Anne knows that it could just as well have been her life that led to it.
Conviction draws a lot of comparisons to another true-story movie, Steven Soderbergh's Erin Brockovich. Both are about single moms overcoming the disadvantages of their circumstances as they throw themselves into the legal arena, sacrificing to right a wrong, struggling to strike a balance between their big-picture goals with the daily needs of their families.
Conviction is a more compelling film. Betty Anne's journey is both longer and with a less certain conclusion: She dedicates almost two decades to exonerate a convicted criminal who, so far as she knows, may actually be guilty. Compare Betty Anne to the cinematic Brockovich (Julia Roberts), who devotes her time to protecting a small town from nefarious corporate misdeeds. One story just makes for a better movie.
Conviction's director, Tony Goldwyn, is no Soderbergh. But Goldwyn, best known as a character actor, coaxes great details out of the cast's performances. Betty Anne's clipped Massachusetts accent is affecting. Kenny is a charming asshole as only Rockwell can play one. Swank and Rockwell are both good bets for Oscar nominations.
As Betty Anne's law school friend, Minnie Driver adds warmth and a healthy perspective to the proceedings but doesn't become a one-note functionary. Juliette Lewis plays Kenny's ex, but her behavior doesn't veer into villainy. Rather it is poignant and one more indictment of the world in which the film takes place.
Conviction doesn't spend much time on the murder victim, which has reportedly upset Brow's family members. Right or wrong, Conviction isn't your typical courtroom drama and doesn't delve into the facts of the case. It's more about family than crime. The film isn't about whodunit but who didn't do it. It's also about the institution of the state, which is more concerned with procedure than justice. It's about a different kind of victim, a life shattered by bureaucracy.
Conviction's morals are simple: Blood is important. Education is important. Effort is important. Justice is important.
Opening Friday, October 29th