Betty Anne (Hilary Swank) and Kenny (Sam Rockwell) suffered a painful childhood—a negligent mother, time in foster care, and days spent sneaking into empty houses to live out the sad fantasy of a tranquil suburban existence—that still haunts them. These scenes of their early lives—especially one in which Betty Anne and Kenny are forced into separate foster homes—are some of the most poignant in Conviction, and effectively depict the events that led to a deep sibling bond and two scarred adults.
Even before the murder conviction, Kenny is clearly wounded. He’s short-tempered, violent, and no stranger to the local police department. But he’s also funny, caring, and devoted to his sister and his young daughter, Mandy. Kenny vacillates from lovingly dancing with Mandy inside a bar to savagely beating a patron as retaliation for an insult.
These complexities are handled skillfully by Rockwell, who brings a well-executed mix of toughness and vulnerability to his role. He makes it easy to see Kenny the way Betty Anne does: as a volatile, troubled man who is worthy of being saved. Rockwell handles the emotional ups and downs of Kenny’s existence in a flawless performance that carries the film. Also noteworthy is Rockwell’s remarkable physical transformation, which corresponds to the crushing weight of Kenny’s prison sentence as he goes from a young person hoping for exoneration to a middle-aged convict who has effectively lost his daughter and his life.
Betty Anne, however, will not be daunted. She is completely willing to give up her own life to save her brother’s, and she doesn’t even seem aware of her sacrifice until it’s pointed out by her children. Unable to afford adequate legal representation for Kenny, she devises a lofty plan to earn her GED, obtain a college degree, graduate from law school, and become an attorney so she can pursue Kenny’s case on her own. Kenny is supportive of Betty Anne’s ambitions; her husband is not; and divorce ensues.
Unfortunately, the disintegration of Betty Anne’s marriage is glossed over. Her husband expresses his disapproval of, and frustration with, Betty Anne’s dedication to Kenny, and without further explanation, she’s in law school. It’s as if a huge scene is missing. The film loses some depth due to this omission, but it wisely doesn’t leave out the effect that Betty Anne’s crusade has had on her children. Her two sons grow weary of the situation and move in with their father—a decision that plunges Betty Anne into depression and causes a delay on the road to freeing Kenny. The plucky Betty Anne doesn’t stay down for long, though, and she’s encouraged by her somewhat pushy friend and fellow law student, Abra Rice (Minnie Driver).
Both Swank and Driver deliver credible performances, although their New England accents often seem forced. There are also a few scenes between them that border on the corny—such as when they jump up and down with glee in a courthouse after locating lost evidence from Kenny’s trial. The script and Goldwyn’s direction sometimes wander into TV-movie territory, but these missteps are few and far between. There are also standout performances by the supporting cast, including the almost-unrecognizable Juliette Lewis as Kenny’s haggard ex-girlfriend and Melissa Leo as a weathered, rigid, and possibly corrupt police officer.
Suspected corruption among the authorities who arrested and convicted Kenny provides a compelling plot twist. At one point, Kenny’s release from jail seems eminent, but proves to be far more difficult than he or Betty Anne had ever suspected. Kenny is devastated and urges Betty Anne to forget him and his plight, but she doesn’t. She’s too steadfast to abandon Kenny, so she enlists Barry Scheck (Peter Gallagher) and the Innocence Project. But even with a legal powerhouse behind her, Betty Anne must fight against a system that won’t easily admit a mistake.
These barriers to justice provide an important aspect to the narrative, which could have easily fallen prey to a candy-coated resolution. The tribulations that Betty Anne encounters and the way in which she is affected by them create a realistic character who is sympathetic, admirable, and relatable. Many moments in the film are powerful in their simplicity and have strong emotional resonance. Conviction simply tells the story of an unwavering sibling bond, the power of hard work and faith, and the benefits of perseverance.
The DVD also includes a conversation between Tony Goldwyn and the real Betty Anne Waters, which reveals information about Kenny’s fate that was understandably excluded from the film. Betty Anne speaks in detail about her unwavering belief in Kenny’s innocence, her “dread” of never being able to free him from prison, and her hope that her story will demonstrate that “anything is possible.” Additionally, Goldwyn recounts the problems that almost prevented Conviction from being made. The film was as fraught with difficulties as the actual events, but Goldwyn took his cues from Betty Anne and soldiered on.