Conviction should have been a good film: after her beloved ne’er-do-well brother is convicted of murder in a tiny hick town, it’s up to his devoted sister to exonerate him, first through the system and then by going to law school and becoming a one-client attorney. Better yet, it’s ‘based on a true story”, though how accurately the film reflects the actual situation is unclear.
What is clear is that instead of delivering a touching story on familial love and dedication, Conviction is instead a predictable, tedious and cloying movie that had me ready to walk out before we’d even reached the halfway point. Worse, at no point did I identify with any of the characters in the story, a fatal flaw in a dramatic film.
Kenny Waters (the always-superb Sam Rockwell) is the redneck brother to Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank), with a constantly shifting narrative storyline, at one point showing them as young children, then as teens, then Kenny after a decade in prison, then just before Kenny is arrested for the brutal murder of Katharina Brow and back to them being young children again. It was a bit bewildering, truth be told.
Set in the small rural town of Ayer, Massachusetts, I felt like every single character in the film was an unpleasant stereotypical hillbilly, swearing, drinking, fighting and mistreating their spouses and children. With that as the setting, it was no wonder I never cared whether Kenny had committed the murder or not. The result? Conviction proved one of the most tedious films I’ve seen so far in 2010.
Rural Americana has become a popular setting for dramatic films after many years when it was either completely ignored or used purely as a setting for comedies (Up The Creek) or horror films (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Joy Ride). I attribute this to a sort of nostalgia for simpler days, for the mythic small town where everyone takes care of each other.
Nostalgia can corrupt a filmmaker’s vision, however, and one of the flaws of Conviction
is in director Tony Goldwyn’s portrayal of Kenny Waters as more of a mischievous rascal (as when he and Betty Anne break into a neighbor’s mobile home, just to eat all their candy and have a nap on the bed) than as the community bully. There’s an alarming bar fight scene that aptly demonstrates this moral ambiguity: Kenny reacts far out of proportion to the situation, but ultimately everyone – notably Betty Anne – are amused and forgive his outburst.
The cliché justification for dangerous protagonists in modern cinema is bad parenting. You’re a psycho killer with ten bodies hidden in your basement? That’s probably because your Mom didn’t love you as a tot. Angry at everyone? Yup, that’s your Dad’s fault. It’s pop psychology at its worst and consequently quite rare when filmmakers portray bad characters, amoral individuals or downright violent and evil people who are that way because that’s who they are. Conviction is no different and when we meet his alcoholic mother and violent father it’s almost with a nod and a wink. You know, this is why he’s such a troubled boy…
Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank) and Kenny Waters (Sam Rockwell) in “Conviction”
In a very Hitchcockian twist, Conviction ultimately rests on whether or not law enforcement officers are more trustworthy and believable than civilians, and what happens if a police officer has a grudge against a local citizen. That’s the fundamental conceit of Conviction, that Kenny Waters was innocent and that the murder of Katharina Brow was pinned on him by a legal system gone awry. Hitchcock, however, would have had a far more interesting treatment, as demonstrated time and again with his distrust of authority.
The antagonist in the film is gradually revealed to be officer Nancy Taylor (Melissa Leo) but her motives are never established or explained, a lapse that hurts the film and contributes to the sense of tedious melodrama. What was her relationship with Kenny and why would she have a vendetta against him that caused her to create an elaborate trap that finds him guilty of a murder he presumably didn’t commit?
Outside of screed-like documentaries that aim to convince us that The Man is evil, dramatic movies need to both entertain and inform to be successful, and Conviction fails on this ground. Kenny is not a sympathetic character – as Hitch would doubtless have made him – and since we never identify with him as an innocent man caught up by a grave injustice, I found that I didn’t care whether he was stuck in prison or freed by the disturbingly obsessive quest for justice by his sister.
Which leads to my core problem with Conviction: even though the story was about Kenny Waters, the film was ultimately focused on Betty Anne Waters and her decades-long quest to free her brother, whom she never doubted was innocent of the murder. But why was she so obsessed, even as he told her to let the case drop? Therein lies an interesting movie, but that’s not what Conviction is about. Betty Anne comes across as creepy and unbalanced, a devoted sister who would stop at nothing to free her brother. My advice? Skip Conviction entirely.