By Steve Persall
Times Film Critic
Hollywood should make more movies based on true stories of perseverance against the legal system when the legal system wins.
Planting the thought that we might spend two hours rooting for a verdict that doesn't happen would help a movie like Conviction. We know that two-time Oscar winners like Hilary Swank aren't cast as courtroom crusaders who lose. Sitting through all the flimsy circumstantial evidence, cover-ups and bouts of doubt is simply what we must do before receiving our happy ending.
Swank plays Betty Anne Waters, a high-school dropout who nonetheless earned a law degree to fight for the acquittal of her brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell) after a dubious murder conviction. There is never any doubt in Tony Goldwyn's movie that Kenny was railroaded to prison. He can be an impulsive jerk with a sociopathic streak — Rockwell excels at playing them — but he's certainly innocent of this charge.
Instead, the tension in Conviction springs from Betty Anne's search for evidence from the 1980 murder nearly two decades later. By then, the emerging science of DNA evidence can prove that blood stains at the crime scene don't match Kenny's type. Betty Anne turns to lawyer Barry Scheck (Peter Gallagher) — part of O.J. Simpson's dream team that made DNA a household term, although that connection is never mentioned.
It's an open-and-shut plot that Goldwyn massages with flashbacks to childhood when it was Betty Anne and Kenny against the world, left by a wayward mother to their own devices. Another reverie shows Kenny to be a doting father, even when he takes his baby to a bar, punches someone and then performs a striptease. That Kenny is such a card. Between the flashbacks and Rockwell's latex crow's feet in prison scenes, we can tell how being framed has beaten down his spirit.
But not Betty Anne, no sir. Each visit behind bars makes her more determined to find that evidence, get witnesses to recant testimony (including Juliette Lewis as composted trailer trash) and wag a finger at Kenny's arresting officer (Melissa Leo). Whenever Betty Anne turns pessimistic, her trusty friend from law school (Minnie Driver) is right by her side, goosing her to keep going.
Goldwyn and screenwriter Pamela Gray remain so intent upon the legal aspects of the story — the most predictable parts — that potentially more interesting aspects of Conviction are given short shrift. The strain of Betty Anne's quest on her husband (Loren Dean) doesn't deliver the domestic fireworks that are hinted. Gallagher smartly plays the lawyer doing most of the heavy lifting, but Scheck is reduced to just another Betty Anne admirer.
More disappointing is Goldwyn dodging the story's cruelest irony, which could give Swank her grandstanding scene for an Oscar threepeat. Six months after his release, Kenny Waters died in a freak accident, making his sister's 20 years of devotion moot. Imagine the reaction scene that could be written and performed from such a twist. But imagination is the key element that Conviction lacks.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at tampabay.com/blogs/movies