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I’m sticking with you: (l-r) Swank and Rockwell in Conviction.

Hopelessly Devoted

By Shawn Stone

Conviction

Directed by Tony Goldwyn

Are 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.

Conviction 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 wrong.

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 this.

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.


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