Strong on personality: Swank sets tone in local legal drama
Whose idea was it to name the movie in which Hilary Swank puts herself through law school so she can get her brother out of prison “Conviction’’? It probably sounded clever at the time — or tested well. The brother is convicted, and in order to free him she’s gonna need . . . But, again, the sister is Hilary Swank. She already has it. The title sounds like a network show about young lawyers doing pro bono work. This film is about a not-as-young lawyer doing pro bono work. It’s better than some network shows. It’s a cable movie.
In that spirit, “Conviction’’ is based on true events that begin more or less in 1983. Kenny Waters (Sam Rockwell) receives a life sentence for brutally murdering a woman. His sister Betty Anne is certain he’s innocent and devotes the next 18 years of her life to freeing him. She starts with her GED and, many years later, passes the Massachusetts bar exam. Along the way, she gets a divorce, raises two boys, works as a waitress and bartender, and finds a law-school sidekick, played by Minnie Driver. Betty Anne is rigid with single-mindedness. Upturning the case hinges on DNA evidence, and when Driver’s character advises her to let the case go after they’re told that the crucial evidence no longer exists, Betty Anne throws her out of the house.
This is a pasteurized entertainment — Hood could have released this movie just as easily as Fox Searchlight. But like a glass of milk, “Conviction’’ is hard not to like. That’s principally because it’s a Hilary Swank movie, where lactose intolerance is a form of heresy. Swank is intensely accessible here. She might be even more of a movie saint than Sally Field in her prime. Without veering into righteousness, Swank is almost pathologically good. That’s both the pleasure and frustration of watching her play poor, put-upon women. Her decency damns complication. There’s no arguing with her or her situation. This is true of a lot of stars but unlike, say, Julia Roberts, whose characters breathe fire on skeptics, Swank won’t retaliate if you harm or doubt her; the Lord will.
“Conviction’’ should have tried harder to create better obstacles for Swank, whose bleary, frequently moist eyes suggest a woman struggling with both the law and a Massachusetts accent. Like Roberts in “Erin Brockovich,’’ Swank storms into a crime lab and gets testy with old foes, like Melissa Leo, playing the Ayer police officer who finally connects Kenny to the murder. Swank then loses it with Peter Gallagher, as Barry Scheck, the exoneration specialist, whose legal organization, The Innocence Project, has taken on Kenny’s case. Betty Anne even wants to take it to the movie’s other villain, Martha Coakley, the mostly unseen district attorney whose name gets a big, regional laugh the half-dozen or so times it’s mentioned.
Pamela Gray wrote the script (she has said she spent nine years on it). The actor Tony Goldwyn directed the film. They also did 1999’s Diane Lane drama “A Walk on the Moon.’’ What “Conviction’’ lacks in characterization (the people here are monochromes — bright ones, but monochromes nonetheless) it makes up for with personality. Swank and Driver make a good legal twosome. Juliette Lewis walks off with her two scenes as one of Kenny’s vividly dim exes. And Sam Rockwell is free to make Kenny as exuberant and uncouth as he pleases. To believe in Swank is to believe that his lasciviousness and womanizing don’t make him a murderer.
This is an underdog drama, as much for who’s in it as for what it’s about. The take-on-the-system feeling in “Conviction’’ is similar to “Erin Brockovich,’’ but “Conviction’’ uses shopworn tricks. The new movie relies on flashbacks to the Waterses’ unhappy upbringing in Northern Massachusetts (the movie was shot in Michigan); they wound up in the foster care system. I can see why Gray and Goldwyn would use the childhood scenes: to illustrate just how codependent the siblings are and why freeing Kenny now means so much to Betty Anne. But they’re cheaply sentimental more than they are psychological. Swank and Rockwell are good enough actors to capture the intensity of that bond. The flashbacks are easier and safer.
With all due respect, the stakes also seem lower than in a movie like “Erin Brockovich.’’ That’s a matter of both the actual case (it’s one woman vs. the law rather than a bigger, multimillion-dollar civil suit) and the film’s structure. “Conviction’’ is a hands-touching-the-security-glass movie, so we see Kenny mostly in prison. Rockwell’s face conveys the emotional wear and tear of prison life, but his character’s struggle is the existential meat of the movie: How do inmates survive an unjust conviction?
Obviously, Betty Anne’s role in his case is much easier to dramatize, sell, and, come the award season, vote for. The movie actually omits the cruelest irony to befall the Waters family after their legal struggles (Kenny died in a fall in 2001). It’s determined to emphasize uplift, lest it impart a sense of cosmic futility more suitable for the Coen brothers. Now the film’s reassurances about family ties are as comfy as Betty Anne’s Roger Williams law school sweatshirt.