Rather unfairly touted as the year’s most Oscar-baiting picture (with many U.S. critics already comparing it unfavourably to last year’s flabbergasting Best Picture nominee ‘The Blind Side’), ‘Conviction‘ may have several hallmarks of so-called Oscar bait – its carefully preened emotional arc for one – but the difference here is that the story is a genuinely emotive one, and therefore doesn’t have to struggle to earn your favour. The fact that it is directed with a sub-’Shawshank’ regard for tact and restraint is neither here nor there; this is a potent, superbly-acted tale of determination in the face of enormous adversity, and director Tony Goldwyn (son of the famous producer Samuel) stages the film with appropriate theatricality.
Based on a true story, ‘Conviction’ begins in the early 1980s with Kenny Waters (Sam Rockwell) being arrested on suspicion of brutally murdering a local woman. After spurious evidence supposedly places him at the scene of the crime – on the meagre basis that his blood type matches that of the perpetrator’s – he is sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. His horrified sister, Betty Anne (Hilary Swank), begins an almost two-decade long quest to prove his innocence; she decides to study the case for herself, obtaining a law degree while attempting to locate the vital, misplaced shred of blood evidence with which DNA technology can now exonerate Kenny.
Expectedly, ‘Conviction’ is a slick, meticulously composed production, though resultantly it runs the risk of seeming quite bland; the obviously placed soundtrack is full of fluffy whimsy, but, like the flashbacks that at first seem dispassionately slotted in for posterity’s sake, it gets better later. Though at first each piano stroke is carefully selected to coincide rather arbitrarily with each strand of meaningful dialogue, the score thankfully evolves as the anxiety grows. Similarly, the flashbacks – beginning by summarily displaying Kenny’s troublesome nature as a young man – transform as the picture progresses, to reiterate in certain terms just how close these siblings are.
Though the courtoom elements are routinely directed and have all the staples you expect – the dodgy witnesses, the slippery bitch prosecutors – they pack a blunt punch not only in terms of the situation’s desperation – for Kenny has contemplated suicide if his innocence cannot be proven – but in capturing in a small manner how barbaric the notion of justice seemed a mere 20 years ago, where such ambiguous evidence can be used to put someone away. Similarly, when Betty Anne decides to begin studying law, the inevitability that it will infringe upon her personal life is fairly down-the-line material, though it smartly elides an anticipated argument scene between her and her husband, instead jumping forward in time and implying a breakdown of the marriage through a restrained, simple line of dialogue.
The fact that it all comes down to locating a box of mis-administered DNA is refreshingly simplistic, apparently not sexing up the real story at all. This does make the act that inevitably saves the day seem rather ordinary and unremarkable, but of course, there are countless administrative and political hoops to jump through before the fight is over, and Goldwyn milks this for all that it is worth. As each hurdle appears, Swank’s exasperated, driven performance allows you to forget the telegraphed ending and soak in the desperate angst. Her performance is strong enough that her unwavering faith never feels convoluted or patronising. Rockwell, meanwhile, conveys a smouldering rage beautifully, his turn here representing the actor’s most fiery to date.
Rockwell and Swank really go to the wall for their art here; Rockwell is close to unrecognisable in the jail scenes (giving fuel that the Make-Up department deserve an Oscar nomination), while Swank seems to have scarce control of her emotions in the film’s most intense moments, making for rivetting, don’t-blink viewing. All of the acting is uniformly good, in fact; Minnie Driver is fun as Betty Anne’s sassy classmate, while Juliette Lewis is memorable as Kenny’s duplicitous ex-girlfriend, and Peter Gallagher entertains in a small role as the smarmy lawyer keen to drag the crooked higher-ups down a peg or two.
Though the end is always in sight, ‘Conviction’ still hits the right emotional highs and lows, particularly nailing the surprisingly touching final moments, which rubbishes any claims to the film’s disingenuousness. Odd, however, is the creative decision to omit the most tragic post-case fact, that Kenny died from a fall a mere three months after his release. In lesser hands, one might not be so easily swayed by the conventional format and simplistic delivery, but Rockwell and Swank will sweep you up with their dedicated work here.
‘Conviction’ is on general release in the U.S. and is playing at the BFI London Film Festival.