An 18-year struggle to set brother free

Posted: October 19, 2010

Conviction opens with the eerie shot of a weather-beaten shack on a bleak, wintry patch of land in rural Massachusetts. The camera pokes inside: There is blood and debris everywhere. Something bad has happened here.

And something bad happens to Kenny Waters (Sam Rockwell), the small-town mug who gets arrested, tried, and sent to jail for life, charged with murdering the house's occupant. It is 1983, the circumstantial evidence is damning, there is incriminating testimony from witnesses, and Kenny's been skirmishing with the law since he was a little kid.

Since he and his sister, Betty Anne, were little kids.

A respectful and compelling account of a real-life story, Conviction screens Tuesday night at the Philadelphia Film Festival, and opens in theaters on Friday. Directed by Tony Goldwyn from a screenplay by Pamela Gray (the pair collaborated on A Walk on the Moon), the picture tracks Betty Anne Waters' 18-year odyssey to clear her brother's name and gain his freedom.

Hilary Swank, working a hardscrabble Massachusetts accent, is Betty Anne: a high school dropout who, certain of her brother's innocence, gets her GED and goes to college and law school, serving drinks at a bar while studying to pass the bar - all to secure justice for her sibling.

Along the way, there are two sons to raise, marital troubles, bureaucratic roadblocks, legal setbacks, and Kenny - growing a goatee, putting on weight, acquiring a glazed, depressed look in his eye - stuck behind bars.

You'd have to be brimming with cynicism not to be impressed by the selfless devotion and unflagging resilience displayed by Swank's character. And the Oscar-winning actress wears the weight of her role with dignity. The scenes between Swank and Rockwell are few - in the courthouse, in prison visits - but thanks to flashbacks featuring Tobias Campbell as a boyhood Kenny and Bailee Madison as the young Betty Anne, we come to understand the bond between the two: From a poor and broken home, with wards of the state circling, it was them against the world.

Conviction follows a predictable course: A Hollywood studio, and a Hollywood star, would not be telling this story if the outcome weren't going to make audiences feel good, if all the heroic sacrifice amounted to naught.

But where Steven Soderbergh managed to incorporate the pluck and feist of his improbable crusader, Erin Brockovich, into the very fabric and spirit of that Academy Award-garnering endeavor, Goldwyn's approach is more somber, more removed, and somehow less epic.

Minnie Driver, as Betty Anne's chin-up law school friend, and Peter Gallagher, as Barry Scheck, the Innocence Project attorney who partners on the case, top a supporting cast that includes Melissa Leo, Clea Duvall, Juliette Lewis, and Loren Dean (playing Betty Anne's hard-pressed husband). It's a noble enterprise, and a remarkable story, but it's not a movie that will set you free.


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@ phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www. philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies.

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