A woman goes to extraordinary lengths to prove the innocence of her brother, a man whom she believes was wrongly convicted of murder, in Conviction, an unremarkable but passably entertaining drama based on a true, local-ish, story.
With accents, Massachusetts “I’m nevah gettin’ out ah heee-ah” accents. But while they might be accenty in their showiness, they aren’t Julianne Moore on 30 Rock, so nobody gets hurt.
“Nobody gets hurt” isn’t a bad way to sum up the movie, either. In a different age, this would have been called Conviction: The Betty Anne Waters story and it would have starred Valerie Bertinelli and it would have been on Lifetime. While you can see the bones of that kind of endeavor here, the performances help lift it to a higher place.
Betty Anne (Hilary Swank) and her older brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell) had crappy childhoods in Ayer, Mass., getting into minor trouble and being sent to foster care because of a neglectful mother. As they got older, Betty Anne got married and started a family. Kenny did the same but he didn’t let fatherhood keep him from continuing to get in trouble — bar fights, etc. After a woman in town is brutally murdered, Nancy Taylor (Melissa Leo), a police officer who seems to particularly dislike Kenny, picks him up as a suspect. He’s released, but two years later, the police, led by Taylor, arrest him again and he’s put on trial for murder. He’s convicted and given a life sentence, but Betty Anne refuses to let the issue drop. She promises to get him another attorney and appeal but neither Betty Anne’s family — which by now includes two boys and a husband starting to get fed up with her unwillingness to accept Kenny’s fate — nor Kenny’s has the money to pay for one. So Betty Anne decides to become a lawyer herself. She enrolls in college (a catalyst, as its shown here, for the end of her marriage) and later law school, working nights at a bar to pay the bills. It’s at the bar that she runs in to Abra Rice (Minnie Driver), a woman who identifies Betty Anne as the other “old lady” in her law class. The two women, both a decade or more older than the other students, bond and begin to work together on Kenny’s case.
Conviction might be “about” a bunch of goopy stuff about determination and love of family, mush, squish, but the action is all about looking for the thread that can be pulled to lead to an appeal. It’s actually kind of hum-drum stuff but it’s presented in a way that holds your attention. Other plot points include Betty Anne’s attempts to get Barry Sheck’s (Peter Gallagher) attention and getting Martha Coakley to basically answer the phone. (The movie makes a small villain out of her.) These are not inherently exciting things and yet the movie makes them very watchable.
And, OK, “watchable!” is never something you’ll see on a movie poster but I mean it as a compliment. Swank and Rockwell turn in very solid performances, performances that this movie doesn’t necessarily seem to warrant (there is a creamed wheat sameness to this movie; you don’t have to know the story to not-wonder what happens next) but that really works to its advantage. I don’t know that I’d advise people to go out of their way to see it, but if you should flip past it while surfing cable some winter day, it’s definitely worth whiling away your free time with. B-
Rated R for language and some violent images. Directed by Tony Goldwyn and written by Pamela Gray, Conviction is an hour and 37 minutes long and distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures.