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Conviction Review

On paper, it seems like an Oscar will be reserved for this film. You take the real life story of Betty Anne Waters, a woman who earned her GED, put herself through college and then law school in order to represent her brother who was framed and falsely convicted for a murder. Then you throw in two-time Oscar winner Hillary Swank, character-actor Sam Rockwell, toss in multiple awards nominee Minnie Driver in a supporting role and hire actor-director Tony Goldwyn to oversee it all, and you might as well set a golden statue or two off to the side and call it a day. Unfortunately, there are a few flaws in Conviction that make this incredible story feel less like an Oscar contender, and more like a Hallmark movie of the week.  Maybe it can shoot for a Golden Globe.

Conviction is not a bad movie, it just isn’t a very good one either. It is entertaining for the most part, but it lacks the emotional punch that it wants you to feel, and the plot seems to skip over some of the more interesting aspects in order to push developments that have a bigger potential payoff, but a longer buildup. The result is a film that takes an amazing story and waters it down by continually pointing out the emotional side of things, at the cost of the events that caused them.

Based on a true story

That infamous tag line, “based on a true story,” has been abused to the point of ridiculousness and parody. Even worse is the phrase “inspired by a true events,” which allows filmmakers to try to trick audiences into believing mostly fiction to get a few extra bucks. After all, technically everything is “inspired by a true story.” Perhaps one day, several years ago in a coffee shop far, far away, George Lucas was enjoying a cappuccino when his waitress smiled at him, and that inspired him to write a movie. So technically, Star Wars is inspired by true events, even if those true events have nothing to do with anything. The air can inspire a story because it keeps you alive. Heartburn can inspire a story. Not all movies based on true stories are created equally, but in the case of Conviction, the true story is amazing.

While Conviction focuses on the life of Betty Anne Waters, played by Hillary Swank, the true focal point of the film is her brother Kenneth Waters, played by Sam Rockwell, around whom the events of the movie orbit. In 1980, a woman named Katharina Brow was brutally murdered in the town of Ayer, Massachusetts, which was also the home of the Waters. Initially Kenneth Waters was questioned and released once his alibi checked out, and it seemed like the matter was closed. Kenneth had long been a known troublemaker and was frequently the first stop by investigating officers when anything occurred, so it wasn’t a major surprise that police questioned him. He left with his family, assured that his innocence was obvious.

Two years later, Waters was arrested and indicted for the murder when new evidence came to light. The new evidence came in the form of two ex-girlfriends claiming that he had confessed the crime to them, and that, paired with a mountain of circumstantial evidence, was enough to send Kenneth Waters to jail for life without possibility of parole.

While in jail, Waters becomes desolate and attempts suicide. The family cannot afford appeal lawyers and things look bleaks, but Kenneth’s sister, Betty Anne, refuses to give up on him. A house mom and a high school dropout, Betty Anne decides to defend her brother herself, and spends the next 16-years advancing through her education. To do so she gains her GED, earns her bachelor’s, then is accepted to law school on her way to becoming a lawyer and a member of the Bar, all while raising two children as a single mother and working part-time as a waitress. During her time in law school she becomes friends with Abra Rice, played by Minnie Driver, who helps her in her quest.

Despite the tremendous personal costs, Betty Anne continued to believe in her brother’s innocence to almost an insane degree. When she comes across the New York-based “Innocence Project”, a non-profit legal organization that specializes in proving the innocence of people wrongly convicted by using DNA testing, she begins to hunt for evidence that everyone keeps telling her has longs since been lost, but she refuses to give up. With the help of the Innocence Project’s co-founder Barry Scheck, played by Peter Gallagher, Betty Anne fights to free her brother after nearly 20-years spent falsely imprisoned. But nothing comes easy to this family, and finding the DNA evidence is just the first step.

And now the rub

From the description, it sounds like you have all the makings of an incredible story. You have drama, social injustice and you have a beautiful and talented heroine who overcomes incredible odds for the sake of love and family, so what could go wrong? Well, plenty.

Again, Conviction is not a bad movie, it just misses some opportunities and it makes choices that create a tunnel-vision-like focus that obscures other facts that might be as interesting, if not more so.

During the first part of the movie, several flashbacks show Betty Anne and Kenneth as children. The idea is obvious, and it is there to show the bond between the siblings. The problem is, these flashes are not all that interesting, they are told in a strange order, and they are clichéd. There is a heavy handed feel to seeing the siblings tearfully separated by the police, while seeing the young Kenneth try to defend his sister from the cops just comes off as unoriginal and unimaginative. Plus, the flashbacks end about one-third the way through, which on reflection, makes them feel forced. They feel like they are thrown in to justify the movie’s heavy emphasis on their relationship, but they are unnecessary and handled badly.  A better writer, director or editor may have found a way to fit these scenes in throughout the movie and make them original and fresh,  but Conviction has none of the above, and it suffers for it.

The biggest problem with the story is the emphasis on things that do more with the circumstances, and less with Betty Anne’s personal progression. A sizeable portion of the movie is dedicated to the search for the lost evidence that could potentially exonerate Kenneth. While the circumstances surrounding Betty Anne locating it are unquestionably extraordinary, on film it still involves her spending precious minutes of screen time asking the same questions, over and over again.

Goldwyn seemed determined to recreate this particular event as realistically as possible, because it is so unbelievable, but he does so at the expense of the pacing. We are meant to feel the tension being ratcheted up as the evidence seems to get further and further away, and the discovery would be a cathartic climax, but on screen it just translates to Betty Anne making phone call after not-so-riveting phone call. This wouldn’t be all that big of a deal, but in the end, the discovery is somewhat miraculous in nature.  And if you missed how amazing the discovery was, don’t worry, the filmmakers are there to make sure you know thanks to the ridiculously clichéd “uplifting piano music,” a staple of all movies that want you to buy into something but don’t believe in subtlety.

Conviction tries to convince you that it is not your typical heartwarming tale, but in the end that is exactly what it becomes. It gambles much of the film on the skills of Swank and Rockwell, which is not a bad idea, but keeping the focus on the emotions rather than the actions makes it feel a bit like a “very special” Hallmark movie presentation.  There is a serious lack of imagination in the way this story is told.  It starts out with the idea of telling the events out of order, then seems to abandon that idea about halfway through and becomes more linear; and the movie suffers for it.

And the winner is… not the real Betty Anne Waters

This movie wants an Oscar. It wants Swank (who you may recognize from Beverly Hills 90210, or, you know, one of  her two best-actress winning roles) to be nominated for a third best-actress, and Rockwell to be up for best supporting actor. Both deliver solid performances, but the movie will drag them down and will be forgotten within weeks. Swank plays the dogged Betty Anne well, but the script, and in a few occasions the makeup applied to make her look older, do not do her any favors. In at least one scene, the age makeup makes her look an old Universal movie monster, which I assume was unintentional. What could have been a movie about Betty Anne learning to work the system and take the fight to “the man” becomes an exercise in luck and perseverance more than anything.

Swank portrays Betty Anne as mostly passive, and that would be fine, but it stands in contrast to the goals Betty Anne reaches, all of which are mostly ignored. To continue on the path that the real Betty Anne did must have taken a certain intensity of character that Swank just does not show — but that seems to be more of an issue with Pamela Gray’s script and the direction than the acting. Even after reaching the impressive milestone of earning a JD after having dropped out of high school, not once does the film version of Betty Anne do anything legal-ish, other than use her status to open doors. Not one single thing. She never files a claim, she does not make any motions, nor does she argue the law with other lawyers. There is one montage where she is researching DNA law, but even that is then undercut by her simply calling the Innocence Project, which sends her to go look for evidence. Betty Anne’s accomplishments are not just relegated, they are ignored to an almost insulting degree.

The movie takes place over the course of more than 20 years, and throughout that entire time, Betty Anne does not change one bit. She does not seem more aware or better educated, she does not have any new ideas or insights. She is the exact same person, just with a law degree which is probably tacked to the fridge. This seems like a deliberate attempt by the director and scriptwriter to focus the story on the love and dedication between two siblings so we will see Betty Anne as her brother does, which is a hugely missed opportunity to explore a truly remarkable woman.

A cast of your peers

Rockwell plays Kenneth Waters well, and the moments he stands out are when Kenneth hits his lows. It is hard to imagine the pain and horrors of spending nearly 20 years in jail for a crime you did not commit, but Rockwell pulls it off for the most part. Betty Anne becomes his lifeline, and his fate is intertwined with hers on a very real level — she is keeping him alive by trying to work for him, something that is hinted at, but never discussed. Kenneth does not trust or believe in the system — with excellent cause — so instead he puts his trust in his sister. Many actors would simply have become background characters, plot conveniences meant to drive Betty Anne’s story, but Rockwell is memorable. He probably won’t win any awards for his performance, but he holds his own against a Hillary Swank, which is saying something.

A special mention goes out to Juliette Lewis, who plays one of Kenneth’s exes, who told the jury that he confessed the murder to her. She only features in two scenes, but they are both memorable, and both times they are significant. Peter Gallagher also does well as Barry Scheck, but his role is more to serve the story than serve his acting abilities. Minnie driver also does well as Abra Rice, Betty Anne’s best, and perhaps only friend. She joins in the crusade to free Kenneth, and while Driver is always solid, her character is never really fleshed out.

Overall, the acting is well handled, and Goldwyn— an actor himself— is an actor’s director. He allows the cast to explore their roles, and they respond by turning in solid performances for him. The problems with the movie are more with the pacing and choices made at the conceptual level, but you can’t fault the acting.

The verdict

Convicted feels like two-thirds of a movie, with the one-third that contained the best parts of the story cut out. In an attempt to stay away from the traditional story-telling avenues that the real events might predictably take you down, it focuses on things that are meant to tug at your heart strings, but never really resonate. It just feels like there is something off with this movie, something just didn’t click. It is never bad, and it is watchable enough, but it never really grabs you, either.

The incredible accomplishments in Betty Anne Waters life are relegated to the backstory, while a search for evidence thought lost consumes a quarter of the film before being quickly resolved. Everything hangs on the case of Kenneth Waters, but Goldwyn is unable to truly convey the story over the 18-year arc of the events. Bits and pieces are raised throughout, but while there is a sense of love between the siblings that drives the movie thanks to some MVP acting, there is very little sense of accomplishment at the remarkable undertaking that Betty Anne Waters achieved. That seems to be a choice of the filmmakers, and an odd one at that. If actors of less talent than Rockwell and Swank had been cast, this movie would have been a true mess. Their acting skills make it watchable, but neither can elevate the material.

In real life, the true story of Kenneth Waters ended tragically. Six months after his release from jail after nearly 20-years, he fell from a ladder and died in a hospital surrounded by his family. The movie makes the decision to skim over this in order to end the film with a more uplifting tone, which again shows the lack of imagination of the film. Kenneth Waters lived a tragic life while his sister lived (and continues to live) a remarkable one. Rather than really delve into either of these truths, Conviction decides to barely touch on both. The result is an average movie that could have been remarkable. Perhaps the real Betty Anne Waters should spend the next 18-years studying film, then she can film a movie that lives up to the true story.