Stellar ensemble cast makes special case ___ 8/10

Directed by Tony Goldwyn
Writer Pamela Gray

Hilary Swank ... Betty Anne Waters
Sam Rockwell ... Kenny Waters
John Pyper-Ferguson ... Aidan
Minnie Driver ... Abra Rice
Melissa Leo ... Nancy Taylor
Loren Dean ... Rick
Clea DuVall ... Brenda Marsh
Juliette Lewis ... Roseanna Perry
Peter Gallagher ... Barry Scheck
Ari Graynor ... Mandy Marsh

Plot Summary: Betty Anne Waters (Swank) is a high school dropout who spent nearly two decades working as a single mother while putting herself through law school, tirelessly trying to beat the system and overturn her brother's (Rockwell) unjust murder conviction.

And yes, this is a case that tries one's emotional apparatus, because the alleged perp Kenny Waters (Sam Rockwell) is like this totally unsympathetic character. It's easy to understand why a jury would convict him—of first degree murder and armed robbery for stabbing and robbing a woman living next to him in a trailer park in Ayer, Massachusetts—because he was basically an obnoxious, annoying, low-self-esteem guy who had had trouble with the law since childhood. Not to mention that two other women in his life gave damaging hearsay testimony at his trial (he had supposedly told them that he committed the crime and was happy the victim was dead).

The kind of guy only a younger sister could love. To Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank), her brother, 10 years her senior, resolutely stood up for her against some of the poor excuses for parental figures they had been afflicted with thru the years. And the movie does make it clear that while Kenny had very few virtues, he maintained a protective fondness for Betty Anne... then later, following his marriage to Brenda (Clea DuVall), Kenny dotes extremely[1] on his daughter Mandy (played as an adult by Ari Graynor).

All in all, when Kenny is arrested for the murder of the neighbor lady in 1983—except for the cops hauling him out of a church where he and Betty Anne are attending the funeral of their father—the whole town is no doubt thinking, "Thanks, Law Enforcement, we thought he was never going to leave." The town must have breathed a huge sigh of relief, just as the viewers of Conviction are saying to themselves, "What an a***ole." Good riddance to bad rubbish. At the same time, you're thinking, wait a minute, there's something fishy about the one woman cop Nancy Taylor (Melissa Leo—Academy Award winner, best supporting actress, Fighter (2010)—who initially arrests him, and, geez, how low-class can the cops get, here in White Trash City, pulling Kenny out of a funeral service!

Then, I'm thinking, okay, Betty Anne has this dogged determination to prove Kenny's innocence. And that's about it. Other than that character quality, she seems rather plugged out. Her family, while she certainly loves them, ranks second to the obsession to prove her brother innocent. But aside from her feelings, there doesn't seem to be any REASON to think that Kenny is innocent. I don't remember seeing any footage that would justify an alibi or even Kenny protesting that much with any SPECIFIC contention that he got a bum deal. And there were scratches on his face, for that matter. What are the writers trying to do? Nothing is justifying to me that a young woman would blindly believe her family member is innocent and proceed on that basis. He seems guilty as hell. Let's leave this for later.

Even though I cannot find myself admiring the Hilary Swank character, young Hilary does a bang up job making what is unbelievable seem believable. The entire cast is heavyweight. Betty Anne's best friend is Abra Rice (Minnie Driver), who compared to Betty Anne stands tall for objective reality. Abra even dares to suggest that Kenny could be, you know, guilty. I've always thought Driver was an A-list actor, from Good Will Hunting to (especially) Grosse Pointe Blank. The scenes where Abra and Betty Anne work together to rise above the system and 'look lawyerly' are worth the price of delivery.

But worth twice the price is the performance of Juliette Lewis. And interestingly, the Boston Society of Film Critics awarded her best supporting actress for this role. In two scenes, Lewis, who plays Roseanna Perry a former girlfriend of Kenny's, knocks it out of the park. She is so real it's scary: basically a sentimentally clueless boozed-out loser whose main lot in life is to be used and abused by every Tom, Dick, and Harry who offers her a fleeting glimpse of idealism or would-be success. She's likeable and naturally comic coming forward later with information that may support the innocence of Kenny. Clea Duvall as Kenny's ex-wife is also clicking on all cylinders in the semi-hopeless trailer-trash princess department.

Following the plot again, thru thick and thin, Betty Anne stays with her obsession, and [true story] becomes an attorney, which enables her easier access to make the motions and do the discovery to pursue the case.[2] Everything boils down to the evidence, whether any still exists. Abra and Betty Anne learn of the Innocence Project of Barry Scheck (played by Peter Gallagher), "a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent further injustice." And that's where the action really gets started.

Most of us have heard of the Innocence Project and the fine work it has done over the years.[3] Not to give anything away, but Kenny Waters is the Poster Child for the Innocence Project. He's one of the guys who not only appears to be guilty, he has the personality that almost everyone wants to be guilty. By the way, Sam Rockwell, a totally underrated actor, does a superlative job, and he, too, wins a Boston area critics award for best actor. Anyway, an unexpected delight, no doubt earning minor ducats, but making a brilliant underscore for straightening out a criminal injustice system that more often than not is worse than the disease.

[1] In a scene in a local dance bar from the 1980s, a patron says something to Kenny about it not being cool bringing in a youngster. Kenny is moving around the dance floor with the, like, two-year-old Mandy. Kenny sets Mandy down, then goes over and sucker punches the guy, basically going ape on the poor fellow. For what? For objecting to bringing a child into a bar.

[2] Which brings up an interesting observation. Why does access to the pursuit of justice require being an attorney? Just an idle question.

[3] Each of the 272 wrongful convictions overturned through DNA testing is unique, but they all originate from common flaws in the criminal justice system. Innocence Project research into wrongful conviction cases helps pinpoint weaknesses within the system. Learn about the major causes of injustice, including misidentification, improper forensics, false confessions and informant testimony.

2011 June 15
Copyright © Brian Wright | The Coffee Coaster™
Conviction | Innocence Project | DNA Test| Hilary Swank | Juliette Lewis

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