Details: (M), 107 mins, In Cinemas 24 February 2011, United States, English
Synopsis: A working mother(Hilary Swank) puts herself through law school in an effort to represent her brother (Sam Rockwell), who has been wrongfully convicted of murder and has exhausted his chances to appeal his conviction through public defenders.
True crime goes Hollywood.
The last time Hilary Swank appeared on screen she played a hero in a story with a tragic ending; Amelia (2009), an unconsciously Disneyish bio-pic about Amelia Earhart. Strong, and stern, Swank played the famous aviator with no irony, no sense of play. It was like watching someone impersonating a kind of spiritual beauty and, as such, it was completely untrue because it all seemed too perfect.
A fine cluey actor, Swank has turned into a somewhat earnest player who casts herself in projects that have a kind of built-in small 'L' liberal ‘right-on-ness’ about them. This isn’t to suggest that Swank’s sincerity is a thing to be scorned; it’s just that that sort of seriousness is a lot more digestible if it’s insightful, gripping, compelling and persuasive. Trouble is earnestness, if that’s all you’ve got, can kill a picture stone dead.
Swank plays a hero again in Conviction, and it’s a painful film, but not for the best reasons. It’s alleges to be a true story. It’s about injustice and the story begins in 1980. Swank plays Betty Anne Waters, a bar girl in rural Massachusetts who dedicated 18 years to a cause that everyone told her was lost. Rambunctious, rude, but likable, her brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell) was the local layabout bad-boy; when any petty-crap went down, Kenny was the cops go-to guy. As a kid, he and Betty Anne were in the habit of busting into the modest home of a local woman and playing out like an especially naughty version of Hansel and Gretel. When this woman turns up stabbed to death, Kenny, who was supposed to have ‘hated her,’ gets charged for the crime by a vindictive cop played by a really terrific actor, Melissa Leo. Director Tony Goldwyn has Leo snarl, scowl, and behave like some silent movie-villain throw back.
Kenny gets life. Betty Anne becomes obsessed; she learns the law to free Kenny, loses a husband and custody of her two boys, and in the movie, ends up with Minnie Driver as a gal-pal co-ed lawyer buddy. After years of struggle Betty Anne catches a break; big-shot lawyer Barry Scheck (Peter Gallagher, doing smarmy and likable all at once) gets onto the case. Betty Anne brings into play DNA evidence (a new legal strategy at the time), but politics and personality stand in the way of Kenny’s freedom. Can Betty Anne beat the bad rap?
It’s all very interesting in an academic way and it’s hard to believe one second of it simply because the filmmakers don’t create a screen-world worth investing in. Goldwyn and screenwriter Pamela Gray have conjured a movie as mono-toned as its hero; the films tricky flashback/time-jumping structure doesn’t help or hide the fact it’s stuck with a premise that doesn’t have much incident or action. The movie is as facile and simple-minded as tabloid TV. (Even the flat anti-flash of Goldwyn’s point-and-shoot style seems a nod to the ignominious sub-genre of cable true crime shows.) Some of the better movies in this genre, like Reversal of Fortune (Barbet Schroeder, 1990) have a way of wriggling into the cracks and fissures of American life that most movies – indie and Hollywood – scrupulously avoid, which is to say they seek to engage directly with class prejudice, bigotry and the subtle complexities of a legal system that can leave the poor hung out to dry.
Goldwyn and co. haven’t made a movie about the opportunities the legal system in the US provides for the poor. They haven’t made a movie about the law. When Minnie Driver and Swank get together, these two passionate neo-lawyers talk about feelings… and when they’re not doing that, they’re yakking about power dressing! Conviction isn’t quite a personal story about the cost of justice in a deeper sense à la Zodiac. Here obsessive behaviour is validated beyond question.
It sounds like a cruel and snide assessment, but what Conviction seems to be really about are two terrific performers grabbing a chance to act their chops off in parts so removed from their own reality (and class). Rockwell is terrific to watch; he’s an exciting and funny performer, but the character hasn’t got an inner-life to get into. It’s like watching a great audition; you wonder what this guy might do with the part once the film starts shooting. Then you realise… this is what he’s got!
Like so many movies based on true stories, Conviction is a matter of selection and compromise. The film finishes on a upbeat note. However, in life Waters story continued in a fashion that was ultimately bleak and heartbreaking. The movie skirts around some tragic facts of life. Didn't they think we could take it?
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