BY MARK TURNER
Films based on actual events have pluses and minuses. The minus is that they tend to overdramatize the story they are trying to tell. The plus is that more often than not you’re given a glimpse into an amazing story. The thing I’ve noticed with most is that the plus almost always outweighs the minus, especially since most of us are privy to the reality that was.
CONVICTION is based on the real story of Betty Anne Water (played by Hillary Swank) and her brother Kenny (played by Sam Rockwell). Coming from a dysfunctional background with a mother who had numerous husbands and worked to the point she rarely had time for her children, we learn their story in flashbacks while the main issue is told in a straightforward manner. That story revolves around Kenny’s arrest and conviction for the murder of an elderly woman in their town and Betty’s attempt to free him for being unjustly convicted.
The film opens with Kenny being picked up for questioning that he tries to laugh off. Sis comes down to pick him up when he’s released and he jokes with her as well. The two are well known with the police since they were always in minor trouble when children. Kenny continued having problems but never enough to do prison time.
We’re presented with glimpses of their lives, how both were married and how Kenny was dedicated to his daughter. But that changes when a few months after his initial questioning while attending his grandfather’s funeral, the police show and arrest him. Charged with the murder, Kenny doesn’t see how he can be convicted. But testimony of two scorned women leads to a guilty decision, a move that will affect Kenny and Betty.
With little or no money on hand to get a well groomed lawyer, Betty decides to go to school and get a law degree herself so that she can represent Kenny. It’s slow going but she trudges through it, making a friend (Minnie Driver) in the process but almost losing her children after a divorce brought on by her obsession to see her brother free. Betty is convinced of his innocence while no one else believes.
To tell whether she gets her degree or not would spoil one of the mysteries presented here. Along the way Betty also gets help from a New York lawyer who specializes in unjustly convicted individuals cases. Barry Sheck (Peter Gallagher) agrees to help her, but the case will take months unless she gets her degree and can find evidence on her own. To save her brother, Betty must get her degree at all costs and then locate and find a way to use the evidence from so long ago that will help prove his innocence.
All of this takes more than two decades for her to do, but Betty never waivers. Her love for her brother is strong enough for her to do what she has to to get him released. Both she and Kenny have moments when they begin to fall, but both come back fighting.
The word conviction is not meant just for the fact that Kenny was imprisoned. It also has a twofold meaning for Betty as well. First, her conviction that her brother was innocent and that she would do anything to prove this point. And secondly was her own imprisonment with her attempt to prove this point. Sacrificing her own chance at a different life, at times her own children, as she dedicates herself to his release becomes part of the story as well.
The performances in this film are amazing. Swank does a stand up job as Betty, showing both her beaten down and resilient sides in a manner that is more than anything believable. But while her performance is quite good it is Rockwell that is a sight to behold. From goofy town troublemaker to depressed prisoner, he brings off the right degree of emotion from beginning to end.
Director Tony Goldwyn struggled for years to get this movie made one he heard the story. In the extras on the DVD he interviews the real Betty Anne Waters so viewers get the chance to see her as well. Sadly, Kenny was killed in a car accident shortly after his release. It’s nice to see that Goldwyn was able to bring this tale to the world so everyone could see the amazing story of a woman who went through so much because she believed in and loved her brother. Would that we could all make such a claim.
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