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With: Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Minnie Driver, Melissa Leo, Juliette Lewis, Owen Campbell, Conor Donovan, John Pyper-Ferguson, Ele Bardha, Marc Macaulay, Bailee Madison, Tobias Campbell, Karen Young, Loren Dean, Michele Messmer, Michael Liu, Gordon Michaels, Jane Alderman, Peter Gallagher, Janet Ulrich Brooks, Ari Graynor, Jennifer G. Roberts
Written by: Pamela Gray
Directed by: Tony Goldwyn
MPAA Rating: R for language and some violent images
Running Time: 107
Date: 09/11/2010

Conviction (2010)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Laying Down the Law

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

If you saw North Country (2005), then you've more or less seen Conviction. On the surface, it's the inspiring true story of a brave woman who stood up against the system. But underneath, it's a fairly blatant attempt to woo Oscar voters, with special attention given to Hilary Swank for Best Actress; if she wins it would be her third, and she would then be closer than anyone in history to toppling Katharine Hepburn's record. This is not to belittle Swank. She does as good as job as any actor could have in this role, but the entire movie is crippled by its attempts to "honor" and "stay true to" the original incidents. It's one of those movies that's always checking itself, looking for approval. The filmmakers are merely translating a story to the big screen, rather than telling one; the movie never strides fearlessly forward or comes to life.

In any case, Swank plays Betty Anne Waters, a single mother in Rhode Island with two kids. When her beloved troublemaking brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell) is arrested and convicted for murder, Betty swears that she'll do everything she can to prove that he's really innocent. She spends nearly two decades working toward her law degree, and then more time untangling a huge ball of red tape.

It's too bad that this stuff couldn't have been more investigative, like David Fincher's Zodiac (2007). Instead, director Tony Goldwyn -- who appears to be attracted to weepy "women's pictures" -- opts for emotions over details. For example, one big plot twist hinges on a box of old evidence that was supposed to have been destroyed; Goldwyn and screenwriter Pamela Gray make the box appear as if by magic, without explaining how, why and where it was preserved. Unfortunately, the emotions Goldwyn has chosen never feel quite genuine, given that the timeline is so cramped and that the scenes are so constrained. For example, Betty Anne never once doubts herself or changes her mind, even for an instant; she's stubborn and obsessive, but wouldn't it have made for a richer character if she showed some more intense weaknesses? (Rather than just "the system is against me"?)

Swank and Rockwell both act their hearts out -- Rockwell makes you feel the frustration and hopelessness of incarceration -- but the movie belongs to the supporting players who seem to have less at stake and more room to play. Minnie Driver turns up as the "wisecracking best friend," a fellow law student who befriends Betty Anne simply because they're the oldest ones in their class. She's delightful and it's great to see her again. But Juliette Lewis knocks one out of the park with her portrayal of a trailer trash "witness" who helped convict Kenny; Lewis has only two scenes on either side of twenty years, and it's almost shocking how good she is and how fully she embodies this horrible person.

Lewis is just a small indicator as to how good Conviction could have been, if only the filmmakers had found some time to slow down, goof off a bit. Or, more importantly, they should have found a way to make the story their own to tell.

Strangely enough, the image on Fox's new Blu-Ray doesn't really pop; it's fine, but it's not spectacular. The only real extra is an interview between director Goldwyn and the real Betty Anne Waters, but it's a short-attention span affair, riddled with cuts and clips from the film. Otherwise, we get some trailers, and audio and subtitle options.

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