Prior to 1999 Hillary Swank was an unknown actress who worked predominantly in television. Then she won the Academy Award for Best Actress for Boys Don't Cry, beating Annette Bening (American Beauty). She furthered cemented her status as a risk-taker and won a second Academy Award in 2004 for Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby (coincidentally also winning against Bening). Unfortunately, Swank's more recent resume has been less impressive, with roles in The Black Dahlia (2006), P.S. I Love You (2007) and Amelia (2009), one of the worst films I have seen in recent years. Swank had long been considered a contender during awards season but last year's effort has tainted her credibility. She returns to the derby this year with Conviction, based on the "incredible true story of Betty Anne Waters." The film's initial trailer screamed Oscar-bait while trying to highlight the emotional performances of Swank and her co-stars, Sam Rockwell, Minnie Driver and Melissa Leo. I had very few expectations before seeing the film and I was neither impressed nor disappointed. Hillary Swank is a better actress than this film requires. She did a good job but the film and the role are unworthy of Oscar consideration, much like The Blind Side. Sandra Bullock won an Oscar because The Blind Side was a better performance than she had ever offered before, but Conviction is just another film with a talented actress trying to win an award.
Kenneth Waters (Rockwell) was convicted of first-degree murder in 1983 and sentenced to life in prison. Kenny and his sister Betty Anne were very close their entire lives, getting into trouble together as young kids. Betty Anne (Swank), convinced of his innocence, spent more than two decades proving his innocence. She obtained a bachelor's degree and then attended law school at Roger Williams University. Betty Anne was convinced that there was wrongdoing on the part of Nancy Taylor (Leo), a police officer who seemed intent on pinning the murder on Kenny. Her quest to prove Kenny's innocence had a tremendous effect on her personal life. She divorced her husband (Loren Dean) and at times alienated her two sons (Connor Donovan and Owen Campbell). Her greatest supporter was Abra (Driver), the only other "old lady" in her class at law school. Betty Anne worked tirelessly to prove her brother's innocence and eventually turned to DNA testing. She enlisted the help of Barry Scheck (Peter Gallagher) of the Innocence Project to get the DNA evidence tested against Kenny and to have his conviction vacated.
One of my biggest problems with Conviction is that it spends too much time focusing on the Waters' childhood. It seems as if the film's director, Tony Goldwyn, wanted to reaffirm their bond but I often found myself wondering if their relationship was ever inappropriate. Swank and Rockwell gave convincing performances which helped the film hit a few highly emotional notes, but Juliette Lewis, Melissa Leo and Peter Gallagher gave performances that were decidedly one-dimensional. I was very disappointed that the film failed to mention that Kenneth Waters died in 2001, shortly after he was released from prison. This fact may have dampened the film's message of hope but it is also the truth. While Conviction does present an emotional story of love and conviction, it often too preachy and at times feels like a film more intent on showing how a woman can overcome her troubled childhood.
My rating: 2 stars out of 4.