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Movie Review: A Righteous, Belabored Conviction

Swank and Rockwell in Conviction.

With the Innocence Project, Barry Scheck has thoroughly atoned for helping spring O.J., and he’s reportedly quite excited about Conviction, which tells the story of one of his organization’s most celebrated early cases: the long quest in the nineties to overturn the life sentence of Massachusetts ruffian Kenny Waters. The story has a hook that’s hard to resist. Waters’s devoted sister, Betty Anne, gave nearly two decades to the cause, getting a college degree and struggling through law school (while raising two sons) in order to represent her brother, and it was her determination-tenacity-gumption-fearlessness-conviction that spurred city employees to find blood evidence thought lost and Scheck himself to come onboard. Her wimpy husband tells her that it’s all over, that her obsession is hurting her family, that the evidence against her brother is too strong, that it’s time to accept the inevitable, and then she gets to say, in close-up: “I will NEVER accept it.” What female star wouldn’t jump at such Oscar bait? Prepare the net: Here comes Hilary Swank!

Swank is overeager and humorless, and I got tired of looking at her big choppers, but for all that I liked her. I envision her director, Tony Goldwyn, suggesting she hit some lines less hard, find other notes to play, other ways of portraying obsession, and Swank responding, “I will NEVER accept your advice to stop emoting.” I imagine Betty Anne Waters felt the same way when people told her that her act was getting tiresome and that Kenny — who hated the old German lady he was convicted of butchering — probably did the deed, having knocked out some of his wife’s and girlfriend’s teeth. Similarly, the way Conviction goes on and on, with flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks, scene after scene making the same point, so that you’re practically crying out, “Now will she get through law school? Now will she pass the bar? Now will they find the blood? Now will the DNA results come back? Now will Barry Scheck call? Now will the Massachusetts D.A. let him out? When? When? When?” surely evokes the excruciating ordeal of Betty Anne and Kenny. (Conviction’s final antagonist is newly elected Massachusetts D.A. Martha Coakley, who fought considerably harder against Scheck to keep Kenny Waters from being released in the face of exonerating DNA evidence than she did to defeat Republican Scott Brown in the election to replace Teddy Kennedy.)

Melissa Leo has some good, creepy scenes as the unsmiling officer who allegedly (the statute of limitations prevented prosecution) leaned on witnesses to lie, and Juliette Lewis wins the Amy Ryan Trailer-Trash Prize of 2010 for her portrayal of a slurry-drunk ex-girlfriend with one tooth blacked out. Scheck should be pleased that he’s being played by an artfully rumpled Peter Gallagher. Sam Rockwell, while not morbidly obese like the real Kenny, makes the character both adorable and scary, a man who is truly untethered. Minnie Driver has the comic-relief role of Betty Anne’s law-school classmate, and the relief has rarely been so welcome. She gets bonus points for not becoming another victim of that serial killer of actors, the Boston accent, hitting her long “ahs” as lightly as if they were iambic pentameter.

Thanks to delayed gratification, the payoff is unusually rousing. It’s no wonder the filmmakers chose not to reveal in the triumphant closing credits that several months after getting out, Kenny Waters fell fifteen feet from a wall after dinner with his mother and died. I think they ought to have put that in, you understand, but I can certainly see why they didn’t.

Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures