TIFF Review: Sam Rockwell Shines In The By-The-Numbers Conviction
Director Tony Goldwyn doesn't do much to dress up the true story at the center of the earnest, perfect all-right Conviction, but truth be told he doesn't need to. Betty Anne Waters' 20-year odyssey to free her brother Kenny from prison, starting by earning her GED and leading to a law degree, is an astonishing story with little embellishment needed, and as acted by Hilary Swank and the magnetic Sam Rockwell, Conviction works better than you might expect for what's essentially a Law & Order episode with bigger stakes. It's not the artiest or most impressive thing you'll see this fall, but it works.
Goldwyn and screenwriter Pamela Gray make the odd and somewhat mystifying choice of never proving off the bat that Rockwell's Kenny is innocent. A roughneck maligned by the system ever since he and Betty Anne were split up in foster care as kids, Kenny is convicted of brutally murdering an elderly former neighbor, primarily based on the primitive crime scene blood testing available in 1983 and the testimony of a few ex-girlfriends with an ax to grind. After Kenny attempts suicide devoted sister Betty Anne decides to go to law school to help solve his case and, miraculously, pulls it off. The first 40 or so minutes of the film cover all this back story in loose flashbacks before finally settling on Betty Anne as a recent law school graduate and single mom, balancing between caring for her two boys and chasing her single life passion of proving her brother's innocence.
Because so much of the film takes place in dim law libraries, courthouses and police stations it doesn't look all that great, and while Swank is at least somewhat restrained doing her usual down-home gal thing, she doesn't quite have the charisma to carry the movie through its discussions of DNA testing and statues of limitations. Luckily there's a solid supporting cast to back her up, starting with Rockwell, whose every scene in the prison interview room and especially flashbacks gives the film a jolt of electricity; Minnie Driver is also quite good as Betty Anne's sharp-tongued lawyer friend, and even good old Peter Gallagher shows up as the good guy lawyer from the Innocence Project to help Betty Anne late in her case. Juliette Lewis is a little more inexplicable in her tiny supporting role-- is she delightfully batty or totally over the top?-- but it seems churlish to do anything but be grateful she's still around, so she gets a pass.
It's possible to sit through Conviction, like I did in parts, with your hands crossed over your chest wondering when the flat legal stuff will actually take off into something that feels original. But when Betty Anne receives the fax that could free her brother at last, or when Kenny finally encounters the daughter he lost touch with when she was an infant, it's hard to deny that Conviction has succeeded on some level, even if it's all happening on the surface. It's a movie just bland and vaguely ambitious enough to slip by with the Academy, but I'd bet on the movie's Oscar campaign only going as far as a Supporting Actor claim for Sam Rockwell and a vain attempt at Best Actress on behalf of Hilary Swank-- and that's just fine. It's a low-key movie of small and uncomplicated pleasures, and trumping it up with a serious Oscar bid-- or a berth at a major festival like Toronto, for that matter-- does it no favors. Go in with low expectations and be willing to catch a few good, surprising things amid the standard-level drama you already saw coming.
More Cinema Blend coverage from the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival right here.
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