Conviction should have been a good film. After a woman’s beloved ne’erdo-well brother is convicted of murder in a tiny hick town, it’s up to her to exonerate him, first through the system and then by going to law school and becoming a one-client attorney. Better yet, it’s “based on a true story,” though how accurately the film reflects reality is unclear.
Instead of delivering a touching story on familial love and dedication, Conviction is a predictable, tedious and cloying movie that had me ready to walk out before we’d even reached the halfway point.
Kenny Waters (the always-superb Sam Rockwell) is the redneck brother of Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank). Set in the small rural town of Ayer, Mass., I felt like every single character in the film was an unpleasant stereotypical hillbilly — swearing, drinking, fighting and mistreating their spouses and children.
One of the flaws of Conviction is in director Tony Goldwyn’s portrayal of Kenny Waters as more of a mischievous rascal (such as when he and Betty Anne break into a neighbor’s mobile home, just to eat all their candy and have a nap on the bed) than as the community bully. There’s an alarming bar fight scene that aptly demonstrates this moral ambiguity: Kenny reacts far out of proportion to the situation, but ultimately everyone — notably Betty Anne — is amused and forgives his outburst.
Conviction ultimately rests on whether or not law enforcement officers are more trustworthy and believable than civilians and what happens if a police officer has a grudge against a local citizen. That’s the fundamental conceit of Conviction, that Kenny Waters was innocent and that the murder of Katharina Brow was pinned on him by a legal system gone awry.
The antagonist in the film is revealed to be officer Nancy Taylor (Melissa Leo), but her motives are never explained, a lapse that hurts the film and contributes to the sense of tedious melodrama. What was her relationship with Kenny, and why would she have a vendetta against him?
Dramatic movies need to both entertain and inform to be successful, and Conviction fails on this ground. Kenny is not a sympathetic character — as Hitch would doubtless have made him — and since we never identify with him as an innocent man caught up by a grave injustice, I didn’t care whether he was stuck in prison or freed by the disturbingly obsessive quest for justice by his sister.
Which leads to my core problem with Conviction: Even though the story was about Kenny Waters, the film was ultimately focused on Betty Anne Waters and her decades-long quest to free her brother. But why was she so obsessed, even as he told her to let the case drop? Therein lies an interesting movie, but that’s not what Conviction is about. Betty Anne comes across as creepy and unbalanced, a devoted sister who would stop at nothing to free her brother. My advice? Skip Conviction entirely.