Who’s In It: Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Minnie Driver, Juliette Lewis, Melissa Leo, Bailee Madison, Tobias Campbell
The Basics: Working-class mother of two Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank) has only ever had her older brother Kenneth (Sam Rockwell) to lean on. So when he’s convicted of a grisly murder in Ayer, Massachusetts and sentenced to life in prison in the early ‘80s, Betty Anne spends the next two decades sacrificing her personal life in order to get a law degree and prove her brother’s innocence. Does she succeed? Would they make a movie about it if she didn’t? Based on a true story and directed by the bad guy from Ghost.
What’s The Deal: Conviction delivers exactly what you’d expect from its cast and premise: solidly moving performances, real-life weightiness, and the predictable dramatic path that its underdog story suggests. This is textbook Oscar-baiting; between Swank’s reliable pathos and that unglamorous mom jeans ‘n’ sweaters wardrobe, count her a contender in this year’s Best Actress race. In fact, it’s mostly Swank’s commitment to the material and her knack for embodying gumption to a tee (see: just about every role she’s ever played, including that brief stint on Beverly Hills, 90210) that keeps Conviction moving along through Tony Goldwyn’s clunky direction. Still, it’s only the remarkable real life story of the Waters siblings that elevates the film beyond its calculated award season trappings and makes it even remotely compelling.
Who’s Good, Besides Swank: Sam Rockwell transforms physically to wear the toll of prison and hopelessness on his face, which deteriorates and grows haggard as the years pass. Minnie Driver reminds us how good she really is with a supporting turn as Swank’s gregarious classmate and BFF, sporting a practiced New England accent. Melissa Leo plays the vindictive local lady cop so well you almost understand why she’d go to great lengths to prove herself. Even Juliette Lewis, stealing scenes as a dim-witted alcoholic with ulterior motives, is cagey enough that she really doesn’t need the bad wig and horrible fake teeth she wears to make her character grotesque and sad and ruined.
When It Feels Like Work To Watch: As if waiting for the predictable plot to unfold wasn’t demanding enough, Goldwyn overdoes it with flashbacks in an attempt to keep things interesting and shed light on the childhood bonds that unite Betty Anne and Kenny for life. After about an hour of that, the film settles into a legal procedural with its own seemingly unending obstacles; every time Betty Anne takes one step forward, politics send her flying two steps back. (Example: Betty Anne miraculously uncovers crucial evidence that allows DNA testing to clear her brother, but a politician leans on the lab to stall; she clears her brother’s DNA, then must gather even more evidence that witnesses were coerced.)
What Makes Conviction Feel Most Emotionally Manipulative: Realizing that for all of its factual accuracy, the filmmakers left one important detail out of their end-of-movie postscript. Would including the actual fate of one of its key characters have been too much of a downer for audiences after they'd cried their way through this otherwise compelling and inspirational true story? Google it (but watch the movie first) and then decide if you agree.