Some levels of persistence defy explanation.
That’s pretty much what I concluded after watching Conviction, the story of Betty Anne Waters, a Massachusetts woman who worked to save her brother from a life in prison. Blessed with a first-rate cast led by Hilary Swank, director Tony Goldwyn takes a stirring look at a case that would have flown under the radar had it not been for Waters’ heroic efforts.
For 27 years, Robert Denerstein was the film critic at The Rocky Mountain News. Read more of Robert's reviews at Denerstein Unleashed.
A waitress by trade, Waters put herself through college and then law school just so she could appeal her brother’s murder conviction. Ultimately, she brought her brother’s case to the attention of Barry Scheck’s Innocence Project, a group that specializes in fighting for the release of prisoners through the use of DNA evidence, a technique that didn’t exist when Kenny Waters was found guilty.
Swank’s performance, aided by a pitch-perfect Massachusetts accent, captures the determination it took for Waters to stay a course that lasted 18 years, and she receives able assistance from a strong supporting cast. Sam Rockwell portrays Waters’ brother Kenny, a Massachusetts guy who had plenty of rumbles with local police before he found himself on trial for a brutal murder. Rockwell conveys both Kenny’s volatility and his charm. Kenny appalled those around him with sudden displays of temper, but quickly appeased them with bursts of goofy humor.
Minnie Driver plays Betty Anne’s supportive best friend, a fellow lawyer. She’s good, too, but Juliette Lewis has an eye-opening turn as a woman whose testimony helped convict Kenny. Toward the end of the movie, Lewis has a scene that may well catapult her into Oscar consideration in the supporting actress category.
No faulting the rest of the cast, either. Melissa Leo hits all the right notes as the police officer who pushed for Kenny’s arrest, and Peter Gallagher handles the role of DNA maven Barry Scheck with the easy pragmatism of an attorney who’s been around the legal block more than a few times.
Conviction mostly focuses on Waters’ legal struggles, but it does attempt to deal with the domestic turmoil that resulted from her commitment to her brother. Waters’ marriage deteriorated, and, at one point, her two sons chose to live with their father.
For all its acting prowess and the presence of an undeniably strong story, Conviction isn’t flawless. The movie ultimately is built for inspiration, and Goldwyn has said that Conviction can be viewed as a love story between brother and sister. He’s certainly not wrong, but his movie might have benefited from a little more outrage at the injustices experienced by those whose lack of resources binds them to a legal system that too easily can ignore them.
I guess the rest of this review contains spoilers, so read on at your peril.
Goldwyn, who visited Denver along with Waters, defends a decision that he made regarding Kenny’s fate. The movie ends without telling us that six months after his release from prison, Kenny died as a result of injuries sustained during a fall. Test audiences evidently felt that such knowledge deflated the movie, and Goldwyn ultimately concluded that the story’s major themes had little to do with Kenny’s death.
It seems to me, though, that acknowledgement of Kenny’s fate could have strengthened the case for making prompt use of DNA evidence. The innocent should not be languishing in our prisons, especially when the technology exists to exonerate them. Kenny was robbed of 18 years of his life. His death only magnifies the injustice he suffered.
Waters is too strong a woman to allow the cruel irony of her brother’s demise to tie her in knots. "The last six months were the happiest in Kenny’s life," she says.
Spend five minutes with Waters and you’ll know that she’s the real deal. She still works at the bar depicted in the movie; she’s not full of herself, and she’s instantly likable, an ordinary woman who accomplished something extraordinary.
If you want to know the definition of the phrase "I’ve got your back," you need look no further than Waters and the movie that introduces her to the world at large.
Sure I’ve got my quibbles with Conviction, but it’s well worth seeing.