Beware those heartwarming true yarns. Just because some truth is stranger than fiction doesn't necessarily make it better than fiction, more compelling or more dramatic or even more convincing than fiction. And so it is in this case, where a story based on exceptional facts gets converted into an unexceptional movie. In short, Conviction has none - at least, not nearly enough to make us care.
Here are the facts: In the early eighties, a Massachusetts man is convicted of murder, then sentenced to life imprisonment. His sister, a single mom and high-school dropout, believes unequivocally in his innocence, but she can't afford a lawyer to mount an appeal. So she becomes a lawyer herself. Yep, the woman gets into college and advances to law school, tending bar by night to support her passing the bar by day. Finally, more than a decade later, she qualifies as a certified legal eagle and hastens to reopen the case. Plucky stuff. For sure, the tale is inspiring. Why, then, isn't the movie?
The answer is pretty basic: No suspense and a plodding structure. Director Tony Goldwyn starts us off with the murder scene - 1980, a small town in New England, a female body drenched in blood. But, immediately after, he snarls the picture in a jumble of flashbacks and flash-forwards. Hey, there's little Kenny and his younger sister, Betty Anne, as kids, surviving their white-trash childhood by forming a deep personal bond. Oops, now they're all grown up into Sam Rockwell and Hilary Swank, although, apparently, it's still pre-murder days. He's the town roustabout, with a short temper and a petty-crime record, but we just know that, deep down, the guy's just a fun-loving sort with a good heart. To assure us, she frowns at his bar fights and laughs at his jokes. But, wait, now Kenny is languishing in jail and Betty Anne is mired in torts class. See - time may be flying, yet the narrative plods.
Matters settle down a bit when, a full two years after the murder, the brother is charged, tried and found guilty - a verdict based on no direct evidence, just on his general reputation and testimony from a pair of ex-girlfriends, one of whom (a made-down Juliette Lewis) definitely seems to be lying through her various missing teeth. From that point onward, the script settles into rescue mode on two separate fronts: Betty Anne's heroic odyssey to save her brother and Swank's similarly stalwart effort to save this movie.
Since the former is pretty much a sure thing, scratch any suspense. Sure, there are a few fleeting scenes designed to question sis's blind faith in bro's innocence, but we aren't buying into those moments of doubt. That's the problem with heartwarming true stories: You just know that, for the heart to stay warm, the ending must stay predictable.
On the second front, however, doubt does enter our mind. Swank suits up with a Mass. accent, a ton of resolve and the expected mix of sweet sensitivity tempered with righteous anger. Fortunately or not, her Betty Anne has a further tendency to tear up at the journey's big setbacks and major triumphs. Typically, that's our job in this brand of picture, but perhaps Swank just means to save us the trouble. If so, she succeeds.
After a while, Swank's rescue mission begins to seem more arduous than her character's. Presumably, the real Betty Anne, after being told that evidence bags from the original trial were destroyed, never had to look at a camera and bravely vow: "That evidence exists somewhere and I'm gonna find it."
Also, unlike Julia Roberts or Sally Field or other actresses working the plucky-femme archetype, Swank doesn't get to flash even a modest sense of humour. Instead, the job of comic relief, minimal as it is, goes to Minnie Driver in the role of the gal pal. Small wonder our star labours here, what with having to raise her kids, get herself an education, make like a detective and right the scales of justice, all the while playing straight woman to Minnie's joker.
Finally, and curiously, the film is so besotted with its heroine that it gives the villains of the piece, the cops who railroaded a guiltless man, short shrift, letting them off the hook. Again, that may be true to life, but drama has a higher calling to probe and explain. Not this drama, though, which only wants to inspire - it's too busy with the saint to bother with the sinners.
- Directed by Tony Goldwyn
- Written by Pamela Gray
- Starring Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell
- Classification: 14A