The opening shot of “Conviction” has Oscar winner Hilary Swank lock eyes with the splendid Sam Rockwell. Just a couple of seconds of emotional screen foreshadowing and we know their story and can even guess their history.
He’s in the joint. She’s trying to get him out. They’re siblings.
This “based on a true story” tale is about a short tempered rural Massachusetts punk and his adoring sister, the sister he protected when they were kids, the sister who bails him out after each of his many scrapes with the law.
But not this time. Kenny (Rockwell) has been convicted of murder. Betty Anne tries everything she can think of to get him out. And when she runs out of ideas, she goes to law school to learn a few more.
Swank was born to play underdogs — coarse, rough-hewn working class women who look at home behind a bar. That’s where Abra (Minnie Driver) spies Betty Anne.
“We’re gonna be friends,” her law school classmate announces, “because we’re the only ones in class to go through puberty.”
Through Kenny’s years in jail and Betty Anne’s ongoing struggle with life, family and law school, “Conviction” takes us on an emotional roller coaster that flies in the face of what we know about Hollywood “get my brother out of jail” stories. This one has genuine edge-of-your-seat appeal. Will witnesses recant? Will DNA testing clear him? Does Kenny, whose temper doesn’t cool much over the years, even deserve to get out?
Actor-turned-director Tony Goldwyn proclaims himself an “actor’s director” with this film, giving his stellar cast and even the bit players close-ups that let them register emotion, confusion, anger and pain. Melissa Leo is the cop who caught Kenny, Peter Gallagher is the famous “Innocence Project” lawyer Barry Scheck, Clea DuVal and Juliette Lewis are Kenny’s trashy ex-girlfriends, and to a one — they dazzle. Young Ari Graynor stands out as the daughter who has grown up knowing her father’s in prison for murder.
Goldwyn, working from a Pamela Gray script, fills in the details of the crime, the trial and ensuing years in snatches — flashbacks — giving away the tale’s secrets with care. The focus here is on what Betty Anne rolls up her working class sleeves and resolves to do — get a law degree, take over her brother’s case. You’d have to have a stone heart not to be moved by her accent-perfect “It’s going to take a long time, Kenny. A really long time.”
The magic to the story is the way he gives her limited life purpose — a driving obsession — and the way she gives him hope, hope that frequently is dashed as the bureaucracy of a system that never likes to admit mistakes —if indeed it make one — stops Betty Anne in her tracks.
But the magic in the film is in the actors. Only somebody who has stripped himself emotionally bare for the camera could achieve the level of performance that Goldwyn gets from every single SAG member on this set.
See for Yourself
Cast: Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Minnie Driver, Peter Gallagher, Melissa Leo
Director: Tony Goldwyn
Running time: 1 hour 42 minutes
Rating: R for language and some violent images.