[29 October 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
For sure, Betty Anne Waters has lived an amazing life: shuttled in and out of foster homes at a young age; removed from the rest of her extended family except for her dedicated, doting brother Kenny; forced to face said siblings wrongful conviction for murder. Desperate to do anything humanly possible to gain his freedom, Waters worked up her resolve. She finished high school, made it through college, went to law school and passed the Bar just so she could become her sibling’s attorney. With the help of famed OJ ace Barry Scheck and his DNA based Innocence Project, she secured the evidence necessary to clear her brother’s name. Through gumption and an unswerving will, Waters did what few without her personal history and pitfalls can even imagine accomplishing. It is quite a tale.
So why is it that Tony Goldwyn’s interpretation of same, entitled Conviction, is so underwhelming? Why does two time Oscar winner Hilary Swank, bringing as much of her Academy A-game as possible to the proceedings, feel like a passive, instead of passionate heroine? Why do minor turns by supplemental players like Minnie Driver, Juliette Lewis, and Peter Gallagher seem so much more powerful and important than Sam Rockwell’s routine, regressive good ol’ boy? Somewhere between the truth and the telling of same, between real life events and their flawed fictionalization, Waters’ inspiration story got lost. In its place is an interesting experiment in tone and narrative that, while getting the job done, definitely fails to fulfill the promise of the premise.
We first see Swank as a companion to her cut-up bro, a well-meaning but quick tempered man who has a reputation in their small town. They are a scandal, but a minor one. When an old lady the duo used to torment as kids is found dead, the police suspect Kenny right off the bat and pursue him for almost two years. Finally finding the “evidence” they need to arrest him and put him on trail, the railroad to prison passes through questionable testimony and a shoddy legal defense. When it looks like all his avenues for justice have been exploited, Kenny threatens suicide. This inspires Waters to get her GED, go to college, and finally, attend law school. Along the way, she marries and divorces a husband, raises two slightly disaffected but loving sons, and makes friends with the only other “old lady” in her class. Eventually, Waters harangues the cops, the former DA, gets Barry Scheck and his Innocence Project to help with the DNA, and with patience and perseverance, finally gets the system on her brother’s side.
A very unusual thing happens in Conviction, a film meant to showcase the iron will of its real life inspiration. Instead of being interested in the mechanics of the legal system, instead of turning Water’s internal quest and educational adventure into a kind of character-driven thriller, director Goldwyn countermands and confuses things. The main story is told in a weird flashback/flash-forward mannerism which sees modern material interspersed with memories and reenactments. One moment, Kenny and his sister are climbing fences and scraping knees. The next, they are shoplifting candy and breaking into people’s houses. Then, he’s in prison promising to end it all. Their troubled childhood, exacerbated by a monstrous whore of a mother, makes for an incredibly intriguing foundation. As a matter of fact, that subject could have been explored further, providing even more insight into the reason for Water’s vehement protection of her brother and need for self-improvement.
But like most things it brings up, Conviction mentions it then drops it. From her stints in college and law school, to the endless pursuit of Scheck and his organization, Water’s journey is a series of stepping stones, none having any real impact. Even supposedly important facets like Kenny’s love for his infant daughter and the women who stand to accuse him are washed over in favor of more scenes with Swank scowling and crying. As an actress, there is a lot to admire here. Never caring how unglamorous or ungrateful she looks, Swank will blubber and babble with the best of them. But at a deeper level, her Betty Anne Waters is merely a robot, an earnest part of the plot mechanics that mandate certain things happen before the predetermined denouement occurs.
In fact, it’s safe to say that the whole “based on a true story” angle works against Conviction. As with the story of Secretariat and its eventual Triple Crown victory, something else has to be brought to the table to accent the obvious. By now, many know that Waters was successful in getting her brother out of jail (the length of time it took was still astonishing). So without that question dancing around in our head, we need a hook, a means of making the eventuality seem more questionable and suspenseful. Instead, Goldwyn plugs in his deserving cast, comes up with a few directorial flashes, and then totally fails to engage us. We want to root for the underdog, to champion a just cause. Never once do we feel any real threat - not from the courts, not even from the corrupt cop (a wasted Leo) who supposed set Kenny up.
Instead, Conviction unwinds like a slightly out of sync watch, keeping decent pace with the facts while leaving anything intriguing or intense out of the mix. We never fear for our players, never once wonder if the truth will finally be revealed. In fact, we are again drawn back to the sequences where a shoddy home life and immoral mother send both of our leads on different, if eventually divergent, paths. We never understand how Waters handled the rigors of her life both in and out of the classroom and obvious questions like financial support and personal pressures are simply glossed over. Unlike many true life tales that play fast and loose with the reality, Conviction seems steadfast in presenting its case. Sadly, the stuff they left out would have probably made the movie a little less realistic - and a whole lot more enjoyable.