It’s hard to actively dislike Conviction, the film by actor-turned-director Tony Goldwyn about the real life struggle of Betty Ann Waters, a single mother who put herself through law school in order to gain the education needed to help free her brother Kenny Waters (Sam Rockwell) from what she believed in her heart to be a wrongful conviction. The film, which stars Hilary Swank as Betty Anne, packs a powerful emotional punch that even the most stonehearted of moviegoers would be hard-pressed to not be affected by — even on a superficial level.
The problem with the film, though, is that this guaranteed “feel-good” effect comes at the price of some of the most emotionally manipulative film-making to ever be captured on screen. The only way Conviction could have been more calculated in its precision-level emotional impact is if Sam Rockwell had played a dog named Marley.
Swank stars as Betty Anne Waters. After her beloved brother is convicted of the murder of a local woman, Betty dedicates her life to proving her sibling’s innocence. This one-tracked mind dedication comes at a high cost — Betty’s marriage is strained to a breaking point and her relationship with her sons is constantly tested.
Rockwell, as Kenny, is a quick-tempered, yet loving man. Dedicated to his family — especially his young daughter who was separated from him when she was an infant, Kenny is a relatively small, if vital, character in the film. His presence is more of a ghost — constantly haunting Betty Anne and driving her desperate attempts to become a lawyer. In the moments he is on screen, though, he brings the goods. The small, nuanced acting that plays out across Rockwell’s face as he reacts to his sister’s emotional rollercoaster ride seems out of place in an otherwise over-the-top, almost cartoonish movie.
Swank and Rockwell hold Conviction together thanks to strong, willful performances. Their brief interactions — mostly set in the confines of a prison visiting room — offer the only genuine moments of emotional sincerity in the film. The rest of the movie, though, is a long, teased-out session of feel-good foreplay. The film’s ending already a foregone conclusion thanks to the high-profile case that provided inspiration for the movie, Conviction takes its sweet time laying out all the many obstacles that Betty Anne must overcome in order to free her brother — “rewarding” viewers’ patience with convenient mini-miracles that suddenly appear to save the day when all seems naught.
As time passes and Kenny continues to rot away in jail, Betty Anne fights fervently to find the evidence and legal support she needs to free her brother. Oddly enough, the film is inconstant in showing the effects of time on characters’ ages. Rockwell is caked with a heavy amount of make-up designed to show prison’s effect on his person and Melissa Leo, who plays the policewoman who helps convict Kenny Waters, is also aged massively throughout the film. Other characters, such as Betty Anne, her children and Kenny’s ex-wife are untouched — making the exact progression of time in the film hard to discern.
The film begins with a fast and loose approach to editing. The movie jumps around quite a bit through different stages of Betty Anne and Kenny’s relationship — seeing the two siblings from the time they were rebellious children through the days leading up to Kenny’s conviction. A non-linear approach to these events seems out of place and inserted only to grasp audiences’ heartstrings as quickly and hardly as possible.
Conviction is a cloying film — intent on showing a very specific storyline for the films’ real-life cast of characters. Important events in the characters’ lives are left out or glossed over in service of story — giving the film an artificial, shiny feel that detracts from the goodwill the movie so desperately seeks to build up.
Much of Conviction plays out like an extended episode of a crime procedural show — right down to the static shots of witnesses talking in exaggerated East Coast accents to investigators about cold cases; offering up previously unknown secrets with case-shattering importance at the most convenient of times.
The film is designed for the easily stumped — laying out plot-points in ham-fisted, overly simplified ways so that even the most dim-witted of audience members could follow along as if they were reading a monosyllabic children’s book.
Despite being a lackluster film, Conviction looks fantastic on Blu-ray. Presented in a 1080p high-definition transfer, the film features a sharp, crisp image with bright, natural-looking colors. In fact, the film has such a sharp-looking image, some of the weaknesses in the film’s aging make-up effects are heightened by the transfer’s clarity.
The film is presented in a no-frills DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround sound track. With clear audio that does its job, Conviction may not have a flashy audio presentation but it doesn’t need one.
A Conversation with Tony Goldwyn and Betty Ann Waters — This ten-minute high definition feature is a brief discussion between the film’s director and the real-life inspiration for the film. Despite being overly stocked with clips from the movie and soft-ball questions, the feature does offer a few interesting tidbits about the real life story behind the film — including the fact that (SPOILER ALERT) the real life Kenny died six months after being released from prison due to a tragic accident that left him brain dead. This very important detail was surely left out of the movie itself in order to fulfill the life-affirming message that the movie was calculated to achieve.
It’s hard to hate Conviction because of its engaging story and impressive performances from its leads. Even harder, though, is any attempt to muster up any real impact from the film. The film is disposable, low-nourishment fast food — easily consumable but, in the end, a totally empty meal.
20th Century Foxy presents Conviction. Directed by: Tony Goldwyn. Starring: Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Melissa Leo, Thomas D. Mahard and Owen Campbell. Written by: Pamela Gray. Running time: 107 minutes. Rating: R. Released on Blu-ray: February 1, 2011.