Oct. 29 2010 12:00 AM

Hilary Swank fights for justice in bittersweet 'Conviction'

“Conviction” is the story of a man behind bars and a woman
in a prison of her own creation. They’re siblings. Based on a true story — that
was still unfolding while the movie was in production, interestingly enough —
Pamela Gray’s screenplay is a bittersweet examination of how the ties that bind
can also tie us down.

Shortly after Kenneth “Muddy” Waters (Sam Rockwell) was
found guilty of first-degree murder and armed robbery in the death of a woman
with whom he had a bad history, Betty Ann Waters (Hilary Swank) began serving
time in the ivy-covered halls of academia. Betty Ann, who’d previously been a mother of two and a bartender to many, was so certain
of her brother’s innocence that she decided to put herself through law school and
devote her life to overturning Kenny’s conviction (thus, the double meaning of
the movie’s title).

As her decision begins to cost her a lot of sleep, a lot of
money and even her marriage, Betty Ann’s tenacity begins to seem less inspiring
than it is delusional. What if she’s wrong? After all, Kenny was well known for
having a foul temper and a propensity for bizarre behavior and, aside from
Betty Ann, he seemed to have something of a misogynistic streak.

While Rockwell’s jittery energy and startling emotional
explosions keep us questioning Kenny’s true nature, Swank is given less room in
which to maneuver. Betty Ann is unswerving in her devotion to Kenny and
unwilling to listen to skeptics, qualities that sometimes make her seem
slightly high-strung or snappish.

To its credit, “Conviction” is not one of those real-life
dramas that hangs halos over the heads of its noble characters, only presenting
them at their brightest moments.

But although Betty Ann is supposed to be the central figure
(and Swank instills her with a fair amount of fiery self-righteousness),
“Conviction” really crackles whenever director Tony Goldwyn lets Rockwell off
his leash, or gives Juliette Lewis a few wonderfully wacky scenes as a trollop
who isn’t necessarily as clueless as she looks. As Betty Ann’s classmate and
co-investigator, Minnie Driver elevates what might have been a conventional
“concerned friend” role into something substantial and resonant. Less fortunate
is Melissa Leo, saddled with the thankless role of a scowling police officer —
Kenny calls her “Angie Dickinson” — who creates trouble for the Waters family.

Leo’s role is one of the few elements of “Conviction” that
seems insincere or exaggerated. Goldwyn and his production team deserve special
commendation for their capable, subtle handling of the story’s very lengthy
timeline (which starts in the 1960s and ends in 2009); they do a fine job of
indicating eras without trotting out too many clothes, songs and cars that
scream, “Now, we’re in the 1970s!” or “See? Now, it’s the 1990s!” The focus
remains squarely on Kenny and Betty: Decades pass, fashions change, but these
two remain trapped in their places, either unable or unwilling to let go of the

Local note of interest: If you sense something familiar
about the voice of the priest who’s speaking moments before Kenny is picked up
by the police, you should: The priest is played by Williamston Theatre
executive director John Lepard, who can currently be seen in “Among Friends” at
Stormfield Theatre.