Conviction fits neatly in the great tradition of tough-cookie-fighting the system films, from Norma Rae to Silkwood to Erin Brockovich.
It tells the true story of Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank), whose loveable loser brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell) is given life without parole for a grisly murder she’s certain he didn’t commit. (We’re not as sure.) She decides to get her law degree to defend him.
But first she has to get her GED.
Of course, Betty Anne's commitment to her brother’s release will consume her life, ruining her marriage, and almost costing her her kids. There will be setbacks, many of them. But she will gain a feisty best friend (Minnie Driver), a fellow adult law student, who rallies her spirits and helps her persevere.
Eventually, Betty Anne learns a new word: DNA. Conviction takes place in the 80s, before DNA evidence was widespread. She realizes that this is the only way she can save Kenny. Except Kenny has been in jail for 15 years and it’s quite possible his evidence has been lost or destroyed.
Betty Anne’s indefatigable search for that evidence, and her unshaking belief in her brother’s innocence (anybody who even suggests that Kenny is guilty gets exiled from her home) provide the emotional and dramatic core of the film. (The film effectively uses flashbacks from Betty Anne and Kenny’s troubled childhood to show how their bond was forged.)
It’s the performances that really make Conviction sing. Hilary Swank is excellent as Betty Anne: We’ve seen her do this kind of role before—the feisty, determined woman who wears her heart on her sleeve—but she just does it so darn well. Smaller parts are expertly filled by the likes of Melissa Leo (as a vindictive cop) and Juliette Lewis (as a strung out ex girlfriend of Kenny’s). But the real revelation here is Sam Rockwell. When we first meet Kenny he is a cocksure bad boy, who always gets in trouble with the cops, but knows he can charm his way out of most scrapes. At some point, though, while in jail, he becomes a broken man—one who believes the system is out to get him—and Rockwell makes subtle changes in Kenny’s body language to depict his malaise. He ages in a sad, believable way.
Conviction, which is directed by the actor Tony Goldwyn, doesn’t reinvent the wheel. It’s just solidly square, rousing entertainment: A good story, well told.