I was convinced Conviction would be a bad film. I can be quoted in the past few months as having claimed that the film was to be a pathetic attempt to gain Oscar attention and win over middle America the same way The Blind Side did last year. I thought it would be a falsified account that dramatically and desperately would attempt to get as much of an emotional reaction as possible from the audience and would consequently lose all real emotion to fabricated Hollywood. I thought the movie would look like a televised Lifetime special. Hilary Swank makes exactly two types of movies, good ones and bad ones. I thought this would be one of the bad ones. I was wrong.
I thought this because of the people involved and the rather clichÃ© trailer. Tony Goldwyn had only directed one film, The Last Kiss which critics deemed mediocre. Producer Adam Sugerman has produced almost exclusively awful films including Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever which holds the coveted 0% on Rotten Tomatoes. Writer Pamela Grey has basically nothing to her credit, which is not a goodÂ sign.Â And previously, Richard Legrevanese was also credited for writing (on Wikipedia, he has been removed now); he brought us the abysmal Freedom Writers, also not a good sign. As I said, Hilary Swank is a hit or miss actress. Coming off of Amelia, I didnâ€™t have much hope.
The first clue that I was wrong is the first thing you see in the trailer. The film is rated â€˜R.â€™ I also should have noticed that it is opening at the Toronto Film Festival and then opening to only a limited release This combination is significant because it means the movie is in fact not targeting middle America and not pursuing the box office, at least not in the 250 million range that Blind Side pulled in. Secondly, it means the film is not afraid to get dirty; it is very intense. Also the trailer heavily advertised Swankâ€™s costar, Sam Rockwell. While Hilary Swank might be hit or miss, Sam Rockwell does not miss.
The story, as many of you probably know, is of Betty Anne Waters, the woman who spent eighteen years trying to become a lawyer so she could free her wrongly convicted brother from his life-without-parole sentence. It is an incredible story. And by incredible, I mean tear-jerking, jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring incredible.Â Â A woman is found dead and we very quickly learn that Kenneth Waters is brought in for essentially every little crime because he has a record. But he is innocent. And in the event of this murder, he is brought in but not put on trial for two years. When he is put on trial, he is found guilty and he had no idea it was coming. After he tries to kill himself in his cell, Swank begins her journey. Pretty quickly she loses her husband and eventually she loses her kids as well. She went from being a high school dropout to lawyer all because of her love for her brother. I know all of this is revealed in the trailer and I thought that was all there was. But I was wrong and I enjoyed discovering the extent the two of them endured separation, so I will leave the rest to your viewing pleasure.
The cast is incredible. Hilary Swank is very talented, but she does the same thing with every role. Sometimes is works for her, sometimes it doesnâ€™t. It works for this one. Minnie Driver is excellent as her one friend that blindly supports her and Melissa Leo makes for a strong antagonist. But I think we all knew Sam Rockwell would steal the show. We all knew he would give a stunning, brilliant performance because he is Sam Rockwell and that is what he does. But what we didnâ€™t know, (or at least what I didnâ€™t know) was exactly how much he had to work with in this role. As it turns out, Kenneth Waters was quite a character. He pulls a wild strip tease in a bar early on and has a childlike goofball sense about him at all times. But when he really shines is when he is with Swank. The two of them generate a powerful chemistry as brother-sister. The love between them is so strong that several audience members at the screening I attended were moved to tears at the two of them just looking at each other. The moments that got me were the moments when Swank shares good news. Rather than explode the way Kenneth normally does, he sits silently with a blank face for a few seconds, digesting what he has just heard. These moments of silence are beautiful and perfect and may just earn Rockwell the Oscar nomination he is about fifteen years overdue.
Â The strength of the film is essentially two-fold. The film understands and respects the reality of the story. Unlike last yearâ€™s Blind Side, and countless other films that fit into the â€œincredible true storyâ€ genre, the story is incredibly accurate. I was right that it plays more like a television experience than a cinematic one at some points. But it is more of a Law and Order court drama than a Lifetime presentation. The matter-of-fact nature of its presentation is far more effective that the flashy, cheesy, desperate attempts at inspiration that are a dime a dozen. The film respects its source material and does not fabricate it; it tells the whole truth and nothing but the truth, as near as I can tell.
It is an alarmingly comedic film. Itâ€™s weirdly quirky. This is one of the few positive remarks I can make for the screenplay, but it adds a lot. Most of the humor is derived from Minnie Driverâ€™s sarcasm and Sam Rockwellâ€™s goofiness. These moments add to the humanity of the film and keep the momentum going when we tire of legal jabber.
Conviction is, however, not the best written film and it has a few other flaws as well. The dialogue slides occasionally, some scenes lack purpose, the chronology is messed with in the beginning to no real meaning or effect, and there are some awful flashbacks about how horrible their upbringing was. There are also at least two stretches of the film where you can literally feel it just spinning the wheels of one of Watersâ€™s Â obstacles, trying to milk it for all its worth.Â One example of this is her constant frustration over how much of her life is being eaten up by this. Another is how long it takes for her to locate her brotherâ€™s case evidence. Literally, we see identical scenes and hear identical phone calls. It gets annoying. But it only makes the payoff stronger.
I anticipate that many critics and many of you will fall to the misconceptions that I had going into the film. And I will admit, that yes, this film does occasionally feel like a lifetime presentation. And I will admit, that yes, maybe I am overselling it by giving it a â€˜B+â€™. But it is hard not to appreciate the rare honesty offered by Conviction. The film has its share of cheesy, inspirational moments, and some of them are awkward. But none of them feel forced and all of them feel real.
The Bottom Line: The original title for the film was Betty Anne Waters. I wish they had kept that title. Conviction is too conventional. Betty Anne Waters sounds more like the film itself: simple, honest, and sweet.