Is it possible to tell an inspirational story without ever giving any sort of insight into the person behind it? You would think that be near impossible but Conviction manages to do just that: focus a story about a life’s work without ever giving any grander insight into why Betty Anne Waters spent almost two decades freeing her brother from prison other than the fact that the two are exceptionally close.
Inspired by the real life story, Kenneth Waters (Sam Rockwell) was wrongly convicted of a murder based in part from a dirty cop (Melissa Leo) influencing his ex-lover (Juliette Lewis) and the mother of his daughter to testify falsely against him. His sister Betty Anne (Hilary Swank), intent on overturning his conviction, goes from being a high school dropout to a law school graduate by years of hard work in order to become his brother’s attorney. Alongside her friend Abra (Minnie Driver), another nontraditional law school student, the two would eventually work hard (and luck into) enough evidence to get his conviction vacated after he had served 18 years in prison via DNA evidence unavailable during his first trial.
It’s a story that has been repeated hundreds of times due to the ways the art of criminal forensic science has evolved in the past 20 years but is no less inspirational; the problem is that there’s nothing beyond the inherent story to give us a real insight into the struggles and eventual triumph of Ms. Waters. Considering the cast, and that this is a film aiming more for critical success than commercial box office numbers, it’s rather interesting that the film’s main story arc barely touches on what makes this such an amazing story: her climb from needing a GED to graduating law school.
Plenty of the best and brightest amongst us fail in the quest to become an attorney. Some through circumstance drop out of high schools, others wash out of college, others don’t make it through a law school program and even amongst law school grads passing the bar examination isn’t exactly a walk in the park. Throw in a Master’s in Education, which the film declines to show, and Betty Anne Waters did something amazing and above the talents of most people. Yet the film shows this as a mere sidestep to the case itself; her years in education are spent in a couple of moments and can almost be summed up as “I came, I saw, I had a bit of little trouble and then I conquered.”
Considering that she did this while raising two children as a single mother sharing custody, and working full time, we are only given a glimpse into this world and what kept her motivated throughout. It’s akin to a story about someone climbing a mountain and skipping most of a harrowing journey up for an extended look at planting the flag at the top. It’s treated as almost an afterthought and yet it’s the main thrust of the film’s appeal. Considering the amount of time the film spends on Kenneth’s initial conviction, as well on the period where it was subsequently vacated, these years spent as a student are a mere afterthought in a story that hinges on her success in them.
Everything else is rather perfunctory in a way; we know she’s going to get her brother will be convicted and then released from prison because history tells us so. The film is about the struggle to overcome the odds and the film doesn’t focus on the struggle all too much. This is the defining crux of the film, the thing it hinges on more than anything else, and it doesn’t pay significant amounts of attention to it. Being there, and her admitted struggles as a student, makes for an interesting piece in and of itself without the context of a brother in prison she was looking to get released. With it, and how it kept her going, is given short shrift when it should be the film’s centerpiece.
This is a story that fits within the traditional hero’s arc and doesn’t seem to acknowledge it. Given that the history has been written, and that the tale has actually inspired others already, this ought to be a story about overcoming insane odds and triumphing when all hope is lost. It gets the triumphing part right but doesn’t spend much time with the struggle. It’s akin to a Rocky movie without an extended training sequence; if he just shows up and beats Clubber Lang to reclaim his title it’s just another story. And that’s what this film ultimately becomes. It’s a shame because the film has two marvelous performances from its two leads.
Hilary Swank has won more Oscars (two) at what should be the midpoint of her career than many high profile actresses get nominated for in a lifetime. While the character isn’t drawn well she breathes a life into it only an actress her caliber could. Given the bulk of the film to carry she acquits herself admirably; we feel for Betty Anne because of the way Swank plays her and not because it’s an overly well-written character. There’s a fierceness and devotion that comes through that the film’s story doesn’t provide; Conviction hinges on her being able to shake and move the audience and Swank does so quite well. We feel for Betty Anne, but the film’s revelation is Sam Rockwell.
Passed over after for any serious awards nomination a year ago for Moon, Rockwell brings an intensity to the role that Denzel Washington similarly did in The Hurricane. Not a choir boy, perhaps more of a short tempered lout with too much of a fondness for liquor, he’s given a wide range of emotions as Kenneth waits over the years in prison as a wrongfully convicted man.
The Hurricane makes for the more apt comparison because it’s a similar film, about a man wrongfully convicted, but that film manages to do what this film doesn’t: keep it unremarkable. This is disposable and inspirational only because of the greater back story as opposed to what is actually on the screen.
Director: Tony Goldwyn Notable Cast: Sam Rockwell, Hilary Swank, Melissa Leo, Minnie Driver Writer(s): Pamela Gray
Scott Sawitz is an Inside Pulse original. He's also been featured on The Ultimate Fighter.com, Fox Sports.com, Nerdcore Movement.com, CagePotato.com, Inside Fights.com and Film Arcade.net (among others). When Scott isn't writing about film he's making his own. Check out Drunk Justice Productions right here.