True story: in 1983, small-town ne’er-do-well and petty criminal Kenny Waters was convicted in Ayers, Massachusetts and sent to life in prison without parole for the murder of Katharina Brow. Witnesses described him confessing to the crime and his blood type was found on the scene. It was a clear-cut case – but his sister, Betty Ann Waters, disagreed. In fact, she disagreed so much that she spent the next dozen years of her life obtaining a GED, a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and finally a law degree, sacrificing everything she had in the process, simply to fight for her brother’s freedom.
It’s a compelling, almost unbelievable story, and the thing that makes CONVICTION worthwhile is that it scrupulously and rigorously takes the time to make us believe every word. The director builds a convincing, low-key world from the ground up. The actors sell what they do with passion and – if you’ll pardon the pun – conviction. And yet there’s a problem: because these sorts of unbelievable true stories are a Hollywood stock-in-trade, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the plot is going to develop along predictable lines, with preordained emotional beats and plot complications occurring at regular intervals with stopwatch precision. And while CONVICTION is a very well-made movie, and a good movie, it never quite achieves the escape velocity required to make us forget that.
Hilary Swank is characteristically fantastic as Betty Ann Waters, a hometown girl from a rough background of alcoholism, foster homes, and juvenile crime, and even as a poised, confident adult lawyer Swank shows us how that background is always lurking just under the surface, giving Betty Ann a hard, angry, and even slightly unsympathetic edge that keeps mushy movie sentimentality firmly at bay. As her brother, Sam Rockwell creates a figure charismatic enough that we can understand her devotion to him and rough-edged enough that we can understand why everyone else is skeptical. The rarely-seen Minnie Driver does good work with the slightly thankless role of Betty Ann’s confidant and best friend, and Melissa Leo – best known to TV buffs as the tough and lovable Det. Kay Howard from HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET – creates a very different kind of policewoman as the cold, sneering patrolwoman Nancy Taylor who may have framed Kenny simply out of spite. (I thought such an obviously villainous creation must be an invention of the scriptwriter, like Dan Hedaya’s corrupt cop in THE HURRICANE, and was surprised to discover that she is all too real.)
Tony Goldwyn’s direction is low-key but praiseworthy; what he does here is carefully, meticulously set the mood of early-1980s small-town Massachusetts with accurate set dressings, props, costumes and attitudes, making us able to understand the world that shaped Betty Ann and Kenny without beating us over the head with on-the-nose emoting. Unfortunately, that same realism is undermined by his use of the tics common to these sorts of movies – the flashbacks, the speeches, the swelling triumphant music – and it leaves the movie feeling somewhat forced. If he could have resisted that impulse, CONVICTION could have been something really special; as it is, it is simply a very good, solid movie that I can wholeheartedly recommend to true-crime enthusiasts or fans of the actors involved.
Video: With its lack of visual flash, CONVICTION is not going to be any A/V enthusiast’s movie, but it is a movie that features a lot of meticulous set and costume detail and the 1.85:1 HD transfer serves that well.
Audio: The Dolby DTS 5.1 surround mix isn’t going to blow anyone away, but it’s perfectly fine for a dialogue-heavy movie like this.
A Conversation with Director Tony Goldwyn and Betty Ann Waters: The director and the real-life subject sit down for a frank and convivial, if sometimes awkward, conversation about the protracted adaptation process (work began on the film in 2001), her thoughts on the cast, and the struggles he faced while filming, including a last-minute loss of funds. An interesting companion piece to the actual film.