‘Wrong man’ thrillers are a dime a dozen, tapping into the underlying belief that if the system fails you, then the average citizen must take matters into their own hands. Just this month, we’ve seen Russell Crowe doing exactly that in The Next Three Days, although his solution was rather extreme. From the far more sensible strange-but-true files, the story of Kenneth Waters – falsely convicted of murder in 1983 – defies logic, but is yet another example of someone from the wrong side of the tracks slipping through the cracks and spending a lifetime behind bars. Actor-director Tony Goldwyn (The Last Kiss) weaves this factual tale into a feature length film in Conviction.
When local troublemaker Kenneth “Kenny” Waters (Sam Rockwell, Iron Man 2) is accused of murder by corrupt local cop Nancy Taylor (Melissa Leo, The Fighter), he is very quickly found guilty and sentenced to life in prison based on circumstantial evidence in the days before DNA testing. His sister, Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank, Amelia), never loses faith in his innocence, to the point that the unemployed single mother of two enrols in law school to help aid her brother’s cause. Over the course of the next two decades, Betty continues to fight the good fight, with little help from anybody beyond her new best friend Abra (Minnie Driver, Barney’s Version).
‘How far would you go to save someone you love?’ is the question that Conviction poses, and while that sounds like the fodder of a cheapy weepy, very few movies of the week have a cast of this calibre. The true story of Kenny Waters is also the story of a corrupt system, the kind that has begged to be toppled since time immemorial. The tale is a familiar one, with an impoverished group of people powerless before the system taking the law into their own hands in order to achieve justice. Unlike The Next Three Days or a Charles Bronson film, taking the law into your own hands does not mean arming yourself and shooting some punks. Conviction‘s story plays out over the course of two decades, emphasising the obsessive lengths that one woman’s faith will take her to. It is the kind of premise that almost demands a cinematic retelling, although it is one that would have been just as suited to the small screen. Indeed, the same kind of stories can be seen almost weekly on any given courtroom drama.
Conviction is not so much lacking in emotion as it is very procedural. One doesn’t always get a sense of the passing of time, except possibly through Betty’s children getting older, as the principle cast (Sam Rockwell’s beard largely excepted) still look as young as they did at the start of the film. Unlike Clint Eastwood’s recent Changeling, in which Angelina Jolie fights a similiarly twisted set of state structures, there is no real sense of urgency either, with Massachusetts being one of the states lucky enough to not have a death penalty. Given the almost 20 years that this tale spans, there are a few missed opportunities as well, with some of the events leading up to the murder and the rough background of the siblings being almost an aside to the otherwise straight retelling of an appeals process. There are some highlights in the supporting cast, with terrific performances from Minnie Driver (making a bit of a comeback lately), and the always fine Melissa Leo (currently winning awards for her performance in The Fighter). Yet a scene-stealing performance from the actress-turned-singer Juliette Lewis (Whip It!) as the wasted junkie who has a crucial piece of evidence in the case is one that stands out in the otherwise standard plotting. A tragic footnote to Kenny’s tale, is that only six months after the events of the film in 2001, he fell off a wall while jogging and died. Not exactly being a Hollywood ending, this isn’t highlighted in Conviction.
The Reel Bits: A standard biopic is greatly lifted by the two terrific leads, and an excellent supporting cast to boot. While never pushing the boundaries of the genre, Conviction is a solid performer in a familiar – albeit entirely true – tale.
Following in the footsteps of many “based on a true story” efforts – both historically (with films as varied as M, Spartacus, Raging Bull and Schindler’s List fitting the bill) and of late (indeed, Oscar hopefuls The Fighter, The King’s Speech, 127 Hours and The Social Network all have their basis in fact rather than fiction) – Tony Goldwn’s Conviction is the latest film to project real events onto the silver screen. As a biopic of its subjects and a story of the machinations of the legal system it sits alongside other features Erin Brockovich and A Civil Action in telling a tale predicated on the pursuit of justice. Of course, unlike the aforementioned films Conviction is concerned with the titular topic, with the wrongful condemnation of Kenny Waters spurring his sister Betty Anne on an eighteen year quest to free him from imprisonment. In chronicling her attempts to clear his name, actor-turned-director Goldwyn takes the standard approach, investing a televisual feel to proceedings that stems from his considerable experience in the medium (with procedurals Without A Trace and Law And Order, crime-themed programs Kidnapped and Dexter, and legal series Damages and Justified on his resume).
Whilst the film undoubtedly bears all the hallmarks of a TV matinée (complete with the low socio-economic status of the protagonists and the David versus Goliath nature of their task), at the core of Conviction is a solid story and potent performances. Splicing flashbacks of their childhood into scenes of Betty Anne’s plight to save Kenny from life-long incarceration – by first struggling through law school and then taking on the legal system – the feature wrings every ounce of sentiment from the remarkable ordeal. Thankfully, the extraordinary facts speak for themselves, and stand out amongst Goldwyn’s heavy-handed helming. Excellent turns from the always impressive Sam Rockwell (perfecting the combination of defeated and defiant), the under-used Minnie Driver (as Betty Anne’s scholarly accomplice) and Juliette Lewis (a white trash ex-girlfriend of Kenny’s) help boost the film’s dramatic credentials, with Hilary Swank competent and consistent in the lead. Of course, the fact that the feature has made it to cinemas is indicative of the ending, however knowledge of the outcome does not impact on the appreciation of the events that unravel nor of the portrayals that shape the real life characters. An earnest film played for emotion, Conviction is solid yet unspectacular.
The Reel Bits: A powerful story and strong performances (particularly Sam Rockwell in an unlikeable role) lift Conviction out of movie of the week territory, but prepare to have your heartstrings well and truly pulled.
Conviction is released on February 24, 2011 in Australia by Twentieth Century Fox.