I’m sticking with you: (l-r) Swank and
Rockwell in Conviction.
by Tony Goldwyn
you a sensitive moviegoer? Then Conviction won’t disturb
you, because the filmmakers protectively ensure that you don’t
walk out of the cinema feeling bad. Yes, you will spend an
hour and a half watching a man suffer and a woman making heroic
sacrifices on his behalf, but you needn’t worry that, when
the lights come up, you’ll be feeling anything but uplift
laced with a little righteous indignation.
is based on an unbelievable true story of dedication and sacrifice.
When her brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell) is convicted of murder
and given a life sentence, high-school dropout Betty Anne
Waters (Hilary Swank) does the unfathomable: She earns her
GED, graduates college and law school, and passes the Massachusetts
bar to become his lawyer. We would like to think of ourselves
as devoted to our loved ones, but what Betty accomplishes
is outside what most of us are capable of; why she
does it makes this a fascinating, irresistible story.
The “why” is revealed in the film’s opening section, which
deftly shifts through time in the lives of Betty and Kenny:
We see Betty in law school, telling her story to fellow “old
lady” classmate Abra (Minnie Driver); then we see Betty and
Kenny as children, dealing with an abusive, alcoholic mom
(Karen Young). We see Kenny the voluble troublemaker (with
a record), an automatic suspect in every crime committed in
their small Massachusetts hometown; we see Kenny the loving
dad, fiercely protective of his baby daughter. And we see
Kenny’s murder trial, a spectacle of jurisprudence gone horribly
The time shifts serve to highlight that the bonds forged between
the siblings in their impossible childhood are unbreakable;
in a very real emotional sense, when Betty and Kenny are together,
they’re still kids.
Swank and Rockwell make this bond seem so strong that the
audience can’t help but see everything that happens from their
perspective. Swank finds the ferocity in Betty that explains
how she could overachieve in such a grand manner. Rockwell
has the harder task: Once Kenny goes to prison, the story
is told strictly from Betty’s perspective, and we see him
only in the visiting room. Rockwell has to convey epic suffering
in constricted circumstances, and he does.
Ultimately, this is a “how it happened” story, not a “what
will happen” story. The audience knows going in that Hollywood
isn’t going to make a drama about an unjustly condemned man
who isn’t exonerated. Director Tony Goldwyn, then,
knows the suspense is in how Betty Anne will go about proving
Kenny’s innocence, and how long it will take for her to do
The filmmakers decided to tell the first two-thirds of the
story swiftly, and then stretch out the last third to really
turn the screws on the audience. It’s an arbitrary choice,
and it plays that way. But Conviction grips you anyway,
because you’ve become emotionally invested in this brother
and sister who got shafted by life. And finally, despite the
best efforts of crooked cops, lying witnesses, an indifferent
justice system and a spiteful, real-life off-screen official
(Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley), Kenny is
free and justice is served.
Then things get weird: The film ends in the traditional manner
of true-life stories. We’re shown a touching image of the
real, reunited Betty and Kenny, while a scrolling text informs
us what happened to the various people in the story. The filmmakers
leave out one tiny detail, however: Six months after being
released from prison, Kenny was killed in an accident so freakish,
so inane that it’s almost a punch line.
Did the filmmakers leave it out simply because they didn’t
want to bum out moviegoers, or because it might undermine
the smooth inevitability of the film’s redemption narrative?
Omission also avoids the thornier question: Does his senseless
death make life seem as grotesquely arbitrary as the series
of slights and accidents that led Kenny to be convicted in
the first place? Does it make Betty a fool, and God the villain?
Clearly, the filmmakers weren’t willing to risk putting a
little faith in the audience. If Tony Goldwyn has been his
sibling, Kenny would still be rotting in a cell.